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In the latest gruesome dispatch from the clusterfuck that is America’s corrections system, the Associated Press reported last week that Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill former Marine, “basically baked to death” in his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell in Rikers Island.
According to the AP, Murdough, who was homeless and on anti-psychotropic and anti-seizure medication, had been at Rikers for about a week, after being picked up by police in February on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping on the roof of a Harlem housing project.
On the night he died, Murdough had complained of being overheated. Because he was housed in a special unit for mentally ill inmates, officers were supposed to check on his cell every 15 minutes, but instead he was ignored and left alone.
When his cell was finally opened, four hours later, Murdough was already dead, and his internal body temperature and the temperature in his cell were at least 100 degrees. The incident is horrifying, but also perhaps unsurprising, given the grim—and often deadly—conditions for mentally ill inmates at big urban jails like Rikers Island.
The number of mentally ill people housed in American prisons and jails has “skyrocketed” over the past few decades, said Bandy Lee, a professor of psychology at Yale University who specializes in violence at prisons and jails.
Murdough’s death, Lee said, “is actually a natural consequence” of putting mentally ill inmates in facilities that are neither designed nor equipped to deal with them. “It’s evidence of the level of ignorance that corrections officers have of the mentally ill.”
Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath.
The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town.
Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers?
Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man? This story examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop the execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence. A word about the reporting.
This article is the result of a full year of research—dozens of interviews were conducted with the principal and minor players, and thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial, were carefully reviewed. Still, what follows is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed.
What follows is a story, built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?
Artists invited the inmates at Illinois’s Tamms supermax prison to request one image of anything in the world, real or imagined—and then they photographed it. Like this photograph of a prisoner’s aunt’s house.
That’s Newsweek’s Andrew Romano, writer of this week’s profile of Jim Webb and his “crusade” to reform the criminal-justice system.