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I am retired and like to stay mentally active, so when the Rachelle Waterman trial came to town I saw it as a good opportunity to learn about the American justice system as practiced in Alaska in 2006.
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I was also most curious about the psychological dynamic among the three accused. Could a 16-year-old girl really have manipulated two 24-year-old men into killing her mother? And how successful would the trial be in establishing the truth?
The most enigmatic and disturbing relationship was that between Jason Arrant and Brian Radel. I considered Radel to be the murder weapon, a loaded gun Arrant kept in his closet, to be used against anyone who interfered in his obsession with the much younger girl. At their sentencing, Judge Patricia Collins compared Radel's reason unfavorably to "your basic 8-year-old," and a psychologist testified that Arrant's "paranoia scale was off the charts." Their psychotic behavior was revealed throughout the trial, for example in Arrant's attempt to divert suspicion by staging an obviously faked attack on himself.
All of which raises the question: Why didn't they attempt an insanity defense? Apparently, the police jumped to the conclusion that these two screwballs couldn't have carried out the crime by themselves, and taking advantage of Arrant's impaired mental ability, persuaded him that his best out was to implicate another victim, thus was hatched the tragedy of this trial.
As for the second question, I concluded that our justice system is not equipped to plumb the inner depths of the human mind. But the law presents a narrower standard, and to the question, "Was the truth established from a legal standpoint?" we may attempt an answer. Rephrasing the question: Is there a reasonable explanation for Waterman's behavior around the time of her mother's death that does not include conspiracy to commit murder? Ten of the jurors thought the answer was yes.
Maybe she didn't take Arrant's fantasizing seriously enough. Maybe she even told herself, "It could never happen here," a lesson she may have tragically learned from her mother a few years earlier. The most telling part of her discredited statement was at the end, when she completely broke down and sobbed, "My father's going to hate me, my brother's going to hate me." This was the emotion she was trying to contain through those awful days.
Waterman is a victim of her sex, as well as her age. Recall Anita Hill, who had important testimony to give in the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court justice, concerning incidents of sexual harassment. For her courage she was insulted and humiliated by the old white men who control the U.S. Senate. Her great sin, apparently, was in failing to come forward until the "last minute." Here's a mature, intelligent, poised attorney who had great difficulty deciding that she must present this evidence. Should we be surprised that a 16-year-old girl might be reluctant to report some creepy older guy's paranoid fantasies?
Public opinion remains largely unconvinced, which shows the immense power of the state in bringing criminal charges. In the words of that eminent jurist and President Ronald Reagan's Attorney General Edwin Meese, "If they weren't guilty of something, they wouldn't be suspects." A young friend asked me, "Well, aren't the cops usually right?" I suggested that she check out the recent history of death penalty cases in Illinois. A few years ago, the republican governor felt compelled to commute them all, after every case that was investigated by law students was revealed to be a frame-up, usually the result of a deal between prosecutors and felons who exchanged perjured testimony for a reduced sentence. Alas, what happens in Chicago can also happen in small-town Alaska.
In her instructions to the jury, Judge Collins cautioned against adopting an unassailable position at the outset, but, in the overheated frenzy of the moment, this is exactly what the state did. A sober view of the case now reveals nothing left but the sad wreck of a man, Arrant. Doesn't the state have about a million better ways to spend our money?
By all accounts, Lauri Waterman was a very valuable member of her community, the state and all human society. She died because she tried to protect her daughter against people like Radel and Arrant, and when she died, the bell tolled for all of us. We do not honor her memory by continuing to persecute her family. May she rest in peace.
Bill Ratigan is a retired ferry worker and resident of Juneau.