Sunday, August 12, 2012

From Marysville to Aurora

California's dubious record of taking twenty years to decide death penalty cases is safe.

The most recent decision to uphold a capital punishment sentence took the state Supreme Court just a few months over two decades. Well, nobody's perfect.

Eric Christopher Houston blamed a high school teacher for his miserable life, and paid him back by going on a 12-gauge shotgun rampage at his high school on May 1, 1992, near Marysville in Northern California.

With pockets full of No. 4 "anti-personnel" buckshot, the troubled 20-year-old viciously murdered the teacher, whom he said had flunked him in economics class and led to his dropping out of school, and three students. He wounded ten kids and held 80 in hostage-horror for eight hours while he negotiated surrender with police.

In negotiations, police adroitly lied to him, telling him he hadn't yet killed anyone. They skillfully sent him a "signed contract," saying if he surrendered he wouldn't get more than five years in a country-club-like prison. Who knows how many more people this whacko would have killed had he known he had nothing to lose.

Death penalty advocates won't like this wrinkle in the case because they insist that capital punishment acts as a deterrent: The killer told hostages that "he had studied the Penal Code, so he was aware of the potential sentence he faced." A California Penal Code was later found in his bedroom.

After a sanity hearing found him fit to stand trial, he was convicted of the murders. In the second part of his trial, called the penalty phase, the killer's defense was standard death penalty "mitigation" fare. Every bad thing in his life was paraded before the jury: alcoholic father, abused mother, uncle who killed people, his spinal meningitis and asthma as an infant, problems learning in school, IQ of 84, and according to a psychiatrist, his serious mental illness, brain damage and feelings of homosexuality -- all to help explain why he went on the rampage.

Significantly, in light of the recent murders in the movie theater in Colorado during the new "Batman" film, trial evidence showed that the school killer loved "The Terminator" movies. How is that connected with the Aurora, Colorado murders? A defense psychiatrist testified that during the rampage, school killer Houston was "dissociated, living in an unreal world, and identifying with the self-sacrificing protagonists in his favorite action movies." Because the "Batman" movie theater killer called himself the "Joker" and dyed his hair orange, expect similar testimony from his defense attorneys to try to show he was crazy at the time.

The tesimony about the school killer's mental illness didn't sway jurors, however, because like in the Aurora massacre, jurors heard about the killer's planning, and ruled the school slayings were deliberate and premeditated. Fortunately for prosecutors, the school killer left notes behind, saying, "What I did today at the school . . . my hatred toward humanity forced me." He also drew a school map and titled it, "Mission Profile." In Colorado, the fact that the Aurora killer sent a notebook to his psychiatrist with "scribblings of stick figures being shot and a written description of an upcoming attack," is clear evidence of premeditation.

An astonding thing to emerge at the school killer's trial was that at about two o'clock in the afternoon on the day of the rampage, a teacher at Lindhurst High School saw Houston walking "with a determined stride," wearing a camouflage vest, two bandoliers of ammo, carrying a shotgun and a sawed-off rifle, and asked him "if he had a permit for the shotgun." The soon-to-be-killer who had last attended the school in 1989, didn't respond, and "continued walking toward" the a buidling, where minutes later he coolly walked classroom to classroom murdering people.

A permit? A teacher sees a guy walking toward a school building with a shotgun and wants to know whether it's registered? Well, I understand this was 1992 -- seven years before Columbine -- and Marysville is rural and "hunting" around there is common. But, can you fathom a teacher today seeing a dude with a shotgun on campus and inquiring about his permit. The scream for police would be instantaneous.

After the rampage, the killer told police "he did not decide to commit the shootings until the teacher asked him about having a gun permit." Oh, now I get it. He felt his Second Amendment rights were being questioned, so he shot up the place.

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