Today one of my clients, who is currently serving time in Florence prison, sent me an extraordinary gift. He spent sixteen hours crafting an inspiring black and white drawing he titled “Zebra Warrior.” It was meant to be a portrait of me. He wrote from prison: “we live in a black and white world, (hence the zebra/female body). You work with snakes, whether it be the prosecutor or criminals and they try to bite you at every chance (hence the black snake rising up to try to strike you). You seem like a strong woman that stands on what you believe and will fight your ass off as an attorney (hence: the warrior lady and weapon on the zebra). The moon is for the bright and joyable things in your life, the black clouds are for the darkness in your life…long trial, paperwork etc… I hope you appreciate it. It’s an original.” -Darrell
In the seventeen years I’ve been practicing law, fighting for the down-trodden and hoping to save a few lives along the way, I have never received, nor have I ever expected, this kind of gratitude. Random acts of kindness do exist, they do matter and they can come from the strangest of places even a dark prison cell. It’s sobering to know that even the smallest act—drafting an appeal, arguing before the Supreme Court, making a black and write drawing–can have a ripple effect on a person’s life.
At times we all wish the truth was fiction. It might be more palatable. After all, imagination is a kind of frontier without borders or restrictions; with true evil, at least we hope there is definition, limit and some moral barometer. And if there isn’t . . . we search for explanation, excuse, and even justification. And if we don’t find any . . . then we look for motivation, for clues in a person’s childhood, for that toxic cocktail that transformed them into a monster, for brutal figures who influenced them, used them, abused them and ultimately erased what made them human. And if we don’t find those factors . . . then we’re left with the untenable hypothesis that there really are natural born killers.
Why else would a Phoenix woman who had been “happily” married for eight years to a devoted and wealthy arts dealer decide one day to throw his body into a freezer, defrost him, dice him up and put his remains into a large garbage bag? Or, a father conclude that it was okay to keep his daughter hostage in a makeshift cellar for twenty-four years so that she could gratify his sexual urges and bear his children? Or, a woman slice up her boyfriend to drink his blood in a perverse vampire love ritual?
Everyday as I stand in the court room and defend against this kind of pathology I search for a way to mitigate my clients’ horrific choices. The challenge is to find a kernel of good, to convey to the judge and the jury that something about them is worth salvaging because our knee-jerk reaction is to warehouse them in cells or exterminate them like rats. My real life experiences have fueled my desire to write true crime because I don’t want refuge or respite from the real stories or the real macabre. I want to understand. Writing is a kind of catharsis for me, a way to process savage behavior with a goal toward inspiring change in the social institutions—schools, families, prisons—who house and guide these sad individuals.
My goal, in many ways is to do what the operatives did in my first book, Running with the Devil, to journey through the darkness in order to understand the criminal mind, its violence, rage and purpose. The undercover operatives lived for eighteen months as outlaw motorcyclists in order to infiltrate another vicious gang, The Hells Angels. They lived a triple life as outlaw bikers, ATF agents and family men. And the stress nearly destroyed them.
Their goal was to cripple the Hells Angels, chill the club’s criminal exploits and enlighten the public about the gang’s activities. In the end few of the criminal charges against the bikers held and the ATF operatives were rewarded with fear of reprisal from the Hells Angels without government protection or, sadly at times, even government interest. But, the operatives’ efforts were not entirely in vain, the Hells’ Angels public persona was tarnished and the club’s reign as “Lord of the Flies” diminished. But what may have died as a news story lives on in Running with the Devil. With both of their secret lives exposed—the operatives’ sacrifice and bravery and the gang’s savagery and pathology—the public cannot forget what happened or why it happened. That’s the real goal for me in writing true crime, to preserve a moment in time and to hopefully learn from the experience so that we can effect change through information and knowledge.