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Friday, January 21, 2005

Murder, 10 Years Later

This week it will have been 10 years -- a decade -- since one of my best childhood friends was arrested for murder.

He was 15 at the time and the first juvenile automatically tried as an adult in Oklahoma.

For this interested, I have included his story below:

Nathan is 15 years old. He is charged with 1st degree murder in the shooting death of a convenience store clerk. In the late night hours of MLK day he is seen on tape walking into a 7-11 and strikes up a conversation with the lone clerk who is mopping the floor of the bathrooms and stockroom. Both know each other well as Nathan has been in the same store at the same hour many times before. After about 20 minutes of hearing a conversation out of the view of the security camera, the camera’s recording is stopped. Sometime later the clerk turns to ring out the mop and Nathan shoots her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. The victim was both a wife and a mother of 2 grown children. Before exiting the store Nathan takes a couple packs of cigarettes and the store security tape with him. He hides the tape under a bridge on his way home and places his parent’s gun back in their dresser.

Later the next day, the girlfriend of a known gang member calls the police to report that her boyfriend and three of his friends have told her they killed the clerk. The police immediately arrest the gang member but, after questioning, release him. The suspect and his friends then call Nathan and tell him to meet them at the top of his street. He does and they pull him into a van where they proceed to beat him for five hours and threaten to kill his family if he does not confess to the murder. They then drop Nathan off at the police station, bruised and with a broken arm, and make a claim for the Crime Stoppers reward.

Nathan is questioned by the police and makes a videotaped, written and signed confession. His parents are then called. Sometime in the next two days, Nathan changes his mind and rescinds the confession. He pleads not guilty. He testifies at trial that he was an accomplice and that he was to both keep the clerk occupied and remove the video tape while the original suspect shot the clerk. He testifies it was done in order to join the suspect’s gang. He claims they threatened to kill him if he backed out.

Despite the testimony of Nathan and the girlfriend of the original suspect, Nathan is convicted on all counts. The prosecution argued that Nathan acted alone and, despite the evidence that the gang members had some involvement, he was convicted under the facts that he was entirely alone. No motive was presented by the prosecution—other than the theft of the cigarettes. At his sentencing hearing, the prosecution presents the only evidence of a prior criminal record Nathan has: one curfew violation for visiting that 7-11 months before. The defense attorney for Nathan declines to present any witnesses that have volunteered to speak on his behalf.

It is known, but not presented at the hearing, that Nathan was raised in the typical middle-class neighborhood. His parents, however, both had prior felony convictions for tax-evasion and were severe alcoholics. His mother was once known as "Madame Butterfly" for operating the largest prostitution ring in Oklahoma before her conviction. Nathan himself was an average student, getting B’s and C’s, and (as presented by the prosecution) had only been in trouble once for fighting with a member of the gang he would later attempt to join. For this he had received the minimum 3 day suspension. This occurred about 6 months prior to the murder. After this, however, Nathan became despondent, paranoid and fearful of his safety. Though never reported to police, about a month prior to the murder Nathan took a gun from the dresser of his best-friend’s parents. The gun was retrieved two days later after it was found missing. Nathan told his friend it was for protection against some guys that were after him.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole when he is, I believe, 51 or 52 years old.

Nathan's lawyer was some big-shot attorney from the state capital that took the case pro bono. He, I assumed, was looking for the publicity that would come with trying the first case under Oklahoma’s new “Reverse-Certification” law. It was a rather infamous case at the time. The attorney only met with Nathan once before trial began. He only met with Nathan’s parents twice prior to the trial. He declined to speak to anyone offering to testify as a character witness on Nathan’s behalf. In short, I don’t think he cared.

The original suspect – we came to find out in the news 5,6 years later that he had been a paid informant for the police for several years. That all ended when he and a buddy forced their way into the house of a prominent businessman in town, then shot him, his wife and their son all execution style (in the back of the head). He then robbed the place. He was convicted and given life. It was then that the news found out he’d been a paid informant. He had committed several other burglaries and batteries over the years but had been let go.

When I was in high school, just 2 years after the murder, the FBI released a report stating that from which I come had, per capita, the most violent crime in the nation.

Three years ago the federal government recognized this city and the artillery base nearby as a single entity. Shortly thereafter they imposed federal oversight upon the police department as the PD would now share jurisdiction over the base. Several of the department’s detectives were forced to take early retirement. The detectives investigating Nathan’s case were among them.

This, in no way, is meant to be a sob story. I believe that Nathan probably did commit the crime.

However, this calls into question the problems which plague our system.

Incompetent investigators. Zealous prosecutors. Lazy defenses. Prisons meant for nothing more than creating better criminals.

At the age of 15, could a murderer be rehabilitated? I think so.

10 years later, at the age of 25, there is probably not much left to rehabilitate.


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