Hazel McHaffie

abuse

The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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A legal blunderbuss

Ashya King is five years old. He’s recently had a cancerous tumour removed from his brain – two major surgeries within a month, in fact. If ever a kiddie needed his mum it’s this one. So how come the authorities thought it appropriate to clap his parents, Naghemeh and Brett, in jail hundreds of miles away from their little boy, in a foreign country where he’d be surrounded by strangers speaking Spanish?

Headline: the searchAccording to media reports, the Kents removed Ashya from Southampton General Hospital without medical consent, thereby jeopardising his life. The father claims he told staff he would be taking his son abroad for a treatment he considered less dangerous than the options they advocated. The family then travelled to Malaga to sell a holiday property to pay privately for a relatively new treatment, proton beam radiotherapy (PBT), in Prague, which the doctors in Southampton had declined to sanction. Hampshire Police issued an international arrest warrant on the grounds of suspected child neglect.

When they were tracked down in Spain the parents were held in custody in a high-security prison in Madrid, Ashya was made a ward of court, police were posted outside his hospital room, his six siblings were denied entry. Can you picture the effect of all this on a desperately ill child said to be unable to speak, eat or drink unaided?

Headline - family bannedCritics have been vociferous – understandably. Words like ‘draconian’, ‘inhumane’, ‘barbaric’, ‘heavy-handed’ abound. The injustice seemed particularly disproportionate when the country is still reeling from the news that the authorities failed hundreds of children in Rotherham who really were abused over a 16 year period. Huge numbers (over 200,000) signed a petition which went to Downing Street.

Headliine - reunitedThen suddenly the authorities did an about-turn, though not before the Kings had been separated from Ashya by 300 miles and several days. David Cameron, recalling the struggles he faced with his own severely disabled son, Ivan, called for ‘an outbreak of common sense’. The Health Secretary offered to fly out an independent oncologist to help advise the parents on the best course of action. Procedures were fast-tracked. This whole fiasco was put down to a breakdown in communication compounded by an over-zealous application of the law.

Headline - accepted in PragueThen came an emergency hearing via a telephone conference; the Kings – once again his legal guardians – were given permission by a judge to fly their little boy to Prague; a private jet was put on standby ready to transfer him; he’s now in hospital there being assessed. A full review of the British authorities role in this whole sad affair has been ordered.

That’s what’s been reported. The picture is, of course, immensely more complicated than this, and we are not in possession of all the facts. We can’t be. But what I do know is that the doctors caring for Ashya have a solemn and binding duty of care for him; they couldn’t just shrug their shoulders and turn a blind eye when he vanished. They also have the advantage of objectivity and specialist knowledge. They will know, as the parents can’t, the real statistics relating to PBT; the range of emotions parents in these desperately difficult circumstances exhibit; the conflicts between maintaining confidentiality and defending their decisions; the tension between protecting the child and supporting the family; the real balance of risks and benefits in this particular situation.

My own issue is not with the tracking down of the family, but the aggressive way they were then treated. Surely everyone can understand the desperate wish to save the life of a beloved child; sometimes grieving and bewildered parents do take extreme action. I’ve witnessed such extreme reactions in my own professional life, I’ve read and heard of many more. It’s a feature of their frustration, despair, dread, powerlessness. Locking them up serves no useful function whatever. It merely adds to the distress of the little patient and his troubled brothers and sisters. And fuels a sense of injustice and mistrust. Who does that help?

 

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