What we’re reading: Stories on teenage gumption, secret clinical trials, wrongful imprisonment and the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald
We love December for its inevitable bouquet of great year-end stories. Lots of good stuff out there right now, including these, four of our recent favorites:
Anne Hull’s poverty piece, “In Rust Belt, a teenager’s climb from poverty,” which documents Pennsylvania teenager Tabi Rouzzo’s struggle to better herself. Hull, who with Dana Priest won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has been absent from the Washington Post for a while, but boy is she back. A snippet:
The silver sporty coupe arriving at Tabi’s one Saturday night was so polished and punctual that it made the sagging house sag a little more. The Dodge Stratus idled at the curb. Tabi came down the busted porch steps in a skirt.
In Deric Lewis she had a boyfriend with the right mix of qualities. “He has goals,” Tabi said. “He’s kinda smart. He works. He’s always there five minutes early.”
But he was also a source of tension in the house and had stopped going inside. Tabi’s mother said Deric was a snob and was turning Tabi against her family. Tabi said that Deric was the best thing that ever happened to her. Opening the car door, she left her mother and “Storage Wars” behind.
Deric was 19 and smelled of soap. He worked full time at Castle Cheese, where he wore a hairnet in 100-degree heat reaching into milky buckets of mozzarella for $9.65 an hour. His dad was a scrap-metal worker. Determined to have an office job someday, Deric was a full-time student at the community college.
He and Tabi were headed for the outlet mall in Grove City, 30 miles away, to see if Deric could use a $20-off coupon he had at Aeropostale. Tabi leaned in close as he drove, until he yawned, and she punched him in the arm.
“Hey!” he said, laughing. He reminded her of his 6 a.m. shift that day. Tabi pointed out that she had also worked eight hours that day.
They were the oldest teenagers in America.
Pam Colloff’s “The Innocent Man,” a two-part Texas Monthly narrative on a man who spent 25 years wrongfully imprisoned in the murder of his wife. With this piece, Colloff firmly establishes herself as a powerful practitioner in the canon of the wrongfully convicted. An excerpt:
After his arrest, Michael spent a week in the county jail in Georgetown before he was finally released on bond in early October. He returned home and tried to resume a normal life with Eric, who had been cared for by both sets of grandparents in his absence. Normalcy, of course, was impossible: in less than five months, he would be standing trial for the murder of his wife. Still, Michael continued working forty hours a week at the Safeway (the grocery chain’s union held that members could not be fired unless they were actually convicted of a crime), and he attended to the innumerable responsibilities of single parenthood, driving Eric to therapy sessions and cardiologist appointments. He knew that some of his co-workers didn’t know what to make of him, but others, like Mario Garcia, welcomed him back. The two men had not known each other particularly well before Michael’s arrest—they had never socialized outside of work before—but Garcia, who had let Michael into the Safeway on the day Christine was murdered, had always been certain that he was innocent. “That morning, he was the same as he always was,” Garcia told me. “I never doubted him. After everything he did to make Eric well, why would he leave him at a crime scene? Why would he kill Christine and then say, ‘And to hell with my son’? It didn’t add up.”
The notoriety of the crime followed Michael wherever he went. Strangers who had read about the case in the newspaper slowed down as they drove past the house. Teenagers cruised by at night, sometimes whistling and honking and making a scene. Michael had decided to sell the house shortly after the murder, and he put it on the market for a song, but there were no takers. One day, a customer approached him in the Safeway. “Hey, I heard that that guy who killed his wife works here,” the man said, lowering his voice. “Which one is he?”
Raffi Khatchadourian’s “Operation Delirium,” a remarkable New Yorker story on the Army’s secret Cold War chemical-warfare clinical trials with 5,000 test subjects:
Within the Army, and in the world of medical research, the secret clinical trials are a faint memory. But for some of the surviving test subjects, and for the doctors who tested them, what happened at Edgewood (Arsenal) remains deeply unresolved. Were the human experiments there a Dachau-like horror, or were they sound and necessary science? As veterans of the tests have come forward, their unanswered questions have slowly gathered into a kind of historical undertow, and Ketchum, more than anyone else, has been caught in its pull. In 2006, he self-published a memoir, “Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten,” which defended the research. Next year, a class-action lawsuit brought against the federal government by former test subjects will go to trial, and Ketchum is expected to be the star witness.
Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post magazine piece on the lawyer who has fought for decades to keep Jeffrey MacDonald in prison. MacDonald, you’ll remember, was the Army doctor convicted in the sensational 1970 killings of his pregnant wife and two daughters after blaming the slayings on a band of Charles Manson copycats.
Murtagh won’t really admit this is personal to him, that it’s really under his skin. That would be un-lawyerly. Ask him why he has stuck with this case so long, pressed so vigorously to keep Jeffrey MacDonald in prison, and he quotes federal case law about the appropriate penalty for first-degree murder.
But it is personal. This case made Murtagh famous, but it also, ironically, circumscribed his career. Despite his formidable talents, to stay with this case, he has had to remain a federal prosecutor, at government salary, his whole life. He has been the institutional memory of the case, indispensable to fighting a relentless series of appeals, one of which was deeply personal, charging him with misconduct for supposedly suppressing evidence. He won that, too. He has stayed on because of an abstract sense of justice, but also because of a concrete duty he feels to three people who died very badly.
“So,” he continues, “you get the Old Hickory knife from the kitchen, and the ice pick, because now you’ve got to make this convincing. This has to seem like a frenzy. And you go to work on them.
“You probably do Kristy last. She is still asleep. The first thing she knows is when you go through her chest….”