It was impossible to sleep that night. I had a project and it was all I could think of. Purpose is everything. My intention was not to free Gene; on the contrary, there was something foul about the whole deal – beginning with the death of an innocent man. What I wanted was what I have always wanted: to help people think so that we make informed decisions. The goal is not to teach people what to think, but how to think. Regardless of my distaste for Gene or his crime; this wasn’t an animal. It was a man who made a series of very bad decisions. It is important to understand that any man is capable (and the operative word is capable) of the same mistakes. I couldn’t suppress the feeling that Gene’s story, as it was being told by the press so far, was not generating the impression that this was a human being. His past was one of a long line of failures. Where he was now was just the culmination of a life that began bad, and proceeded downhill from there. Gene wasn’t a likable character, but he was no animal either.
There were other questions which I hadn’t thought about, that came out of our initial conversation. No wonder journalists always got it wrong. Their’s is a rush to be first, not right or fair. A conversation lasting an hour over lunch was never going to get at the nuances that really told the story. The facts might be there, but not the flavor.
This thing was really going to come down to the drug buy and the very strange bedfellows that it made. I needed to understand Gene’s drug use. Was it recreational or did Gene spend the greater part of his day trying to satisfy his habit? Obviously, the lessons taught in rehab didn’t stick, at least not for Gene, (but it sounds as if they did for his wife).
I also wondered if Gene’s drug use was responsible for his breakup with his wife. And if so, at what point did she say, “I’ve had enough.”
At the evening unlock two days later, Gene appeared at my cell door. He was actually a little more upbeat than I had ever remembered seeing him. He was carrying a brown paper bag which he put on the floor. He said that he had a few questions that he wanted to ask me.
It turns out that his case had been delayed because the professor researching venue changes had become ill – apparently requiring a coronary artery bypass grafting. With the delay Gene had had the opportunity to think a little bit more about our “project”. Right off the top he wanted to know what I got out of it. That is a constant in here because no one does anything without some type of compensation. I thought that was a particularly fair question. Turns out Gene had discussed our previous conversation with his celly, Mario, who I didn’t really know that much about. I had interacted with him on E mod, and found him reasonable and harmless.
Their apprehension, or at least Gene’s question, was certainly appropriate in this environment. Although the classification officer had her reasons for putting me in the protective custody unit (celebrity), a large number of these guys were informants. They had worked out deals with the District Attorney and thus were separated from the general population to keep from being killed. Gene and Mario just wanted to be sure they weren’t being “sold up the river”. It was more than fair for Gene to inquire.
“I don’t’ get anything from Solano County, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “My sentence is done in about three weeks, no probation, and no parole, done. That’s why I’m here. I don’t want anything from any of these people. I chose the maximum sentence; I intend to complete it; and I plan to be left alone when I’m done…There is a lot of secondary gain for me, though. First and foremost, I recently got killed in the press and as far as I’m concerned none of the press got it right and worst yet, none of them cared to: all they were concerned with was getting it exclusively and getting it first. Not one cared about the truth. So I guess that’s my main motivation: to demonstrate to the Daily Republic and reporters in general that they always get the story wrong, but more importantly, it’s because deep down they really don’t care.”
“Yeah, I know…I used to save stories written by the reporter and I quit because he never got it right.”
“Well, look at Iraq,” I said. “The Bush administration was able to get us in a war because the press was reporting to the people of the United States that Saddam Husein was stockpiling WMDs. Now people, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people, are dead and there were no weapons. That’s my point. They say things that have an impact on people’s lives, but don’t care enough to get it right.”
“I didn’t get to talk with my lawyer today. I had originally asked him about going to the press with the truth, but he says it makes no sense because they are not going to be sympathetic to me.”
“But I thought you said that’s what you wanted to do?”
“It is, but I’m not you. If I go on TV, for instance, and say how great I am, no one cares; but they might listen if someone else says I’m great. Look…my point is I don’t know how this is going to go for you, but I would like for people to get the true story. I’m not going to tell you that I would not relish pushing it in some reporter’s face; I would. I think they write things that aren’t true and destroy people’s lives. And worse, they couldn’t give a shit; they’re on to the next story. I’m not sure whether your story should go to TV people or the papers; it seems to me this is a local story, though.”
“So what is it you do?” Gene asked. “I know you were in here on some kind of DUI thing. I’m not trying to get into your business…”
“No, that’s OK. I’m a doctor that’s what I do. I also do a TV show and try to write. To be honest, I’m working on a book about my experience at Solano County and this might make a great addition to that. Actually it might be a great way to introduce the book. Who knows, somebody with a little passion might read it and say ‘Hey, this guy is getting screwed’ and start a campaign to help you…I don’t know”.
Gene seemed to like that. My motives were now making sense to him. I suspect not many of my colleagues have had anybody do much of anything for them without expecting, perhaps demanding, something in return.
Unfortunately, we had come to the end of Gene’s unlock. We said our goodbyes and he offered to get back to me. I know this was hard for him, particularly not knowing who or what to trust. If you are not accustomed to the media coming at you in a feeding frenzy, this process is too much. Again, I felt bad for him. I thought simply having someone listen to his side, truly listen, might make his day better. It’s rough sitting in a 6×10 foot room for 22 hours a day with nothing but your thoughts. I was sure he must be running that night through his head over and over and over again. He certainly read the newspaper like that was all he did: remember that night.
I watched Gene over the next week or so and he seemed a man lost, a man overwhelmed with indecision. He seemed to misplace things and then wander around the day room retrieving his belongings. At one point I thought how comical this guy looks, sort of out of step with the rest of humanity, almost screaming, “Please, don’t anyone pick me out of the crowd.”
It was difficult, no, almost impossible, to pick him out as being involved in a murder, but I guess that’s really the point. The press paints all these guys as monsters, but they never really are. They’re just people like you and me. Quite ordinary in their appearance and in Gene’s case, quite passive in his mannerisms.