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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: When death dominates the news

by Debra Hale-Shelton | November 24, 2019 at 1:53 a.m.

I began reporting the news and, hence, death before I could vote or had my first taste of alcohol.

Aside from the high school newspaper, my first byline appeared in my hometown weekly, the now-defunct Marked Tree Tribune. It was a small town, population roughly 3,000 and mostly Yellow Dog Democrats in those days, with a Rockefeller Republican for the newspaper's editor. Her name was Dorothy Stuck, and she went on to hold a federal civil-rights post and to be inducted into the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame.

My first encounter with the news coverage of death was at the Tribune on June 6, 1968, though I wrote not a word about it. The news was out of Los Angeles that day because Robert Kennedy had been fatally shot hours earlier. He was running for president, the office his older brother John held until he, too, was slain five years earlier. Two months before his own death, Robert Kennedy had attended the funeral of yet another shooting victim, Martin Luther King Jr.

There was little love lost for Robert Kennedy in Arkansas, and it was Thursday, the day the weekly newspaper went to press. But with no apparent worries about paper sales or overtime, Mrs. Stuck became the first editor I ever knew to stop the presses.

She was not naive enough to try to cover the assassination from Marked Tree. What she did was more important. She quickly typed an editorial. The title: "As a Nation Thinketh ..." I learned about integrity as well as death that day.

Many years later, I had perhaps the worst assignment of my life while working for The Associated Press in Chicago.

Death surrounded me that day as the July sun beamed down onto the blistering concrete. Nine huge refrigerated trucks were parked in a makeshift lot beside Chicago's Flournoy Street. So many people were dead that the Cook County morgue's 222 bays were full. Still more bodies lay in funeral homes.

The year was 1995. The killer was a relentless heat wave with a heat index that reached 126 degrees. More than 700 people died. One of them was 93-year-old Lenora McGown. Almost 400 of the victims were 60 or older. Like so many, McGown lived alone in the North Side apartment where she died. No one immediately claimed her body.

Not long ago, I was online and saw a picture of a mass grave in Homewood, Ill., a south suburb. A man and a little boy stood beside the tree-shaded hole, where the unclaimed bodies of more than 40 heat victims lay inside cheap wooden coffins awaiting burial.

I do not know if McGown's body was among them.

I do know that I went home the night after I staked out the morgue to an air-conditioned 52nd-floor apartment where I too lived alone but comfortably and within a phone call of my family in Arkansas.

And I remembered what the young mortuary student had told me that day as we stood outside the morgue. I had asked him if he and the others examining the bodies ever wondered who these people were or thought about the life of the person whose death they were scrutinizing.

"You always do," he said. "What they did, if they had their own family. You wonder if it'll happen to you."

Sometimes my coverage was of the guilty--or at least those convicted in court and sentenced to death. I do not write of these people to extol them but to reflect on what their written words said about them.

Several months ago, I was cleaning out my garage and came over some letters exchanged with some of Arkansas' death row inmates in the early '80s. At that time, I was working for the AP in Little Rock and in 1981 mailed a series of questions to several of those inmates.

John Edward Swindler was among those who replied. He defended himself but did not deny he had killed a teenage couple or the police officer who later recognized him.

"I have no remorse on what I've done. I don't feel guilty whatsoever," he wrote. "I can't trust nobody. Too many people put me down. I've been that way ever since I was 14," the first time he was locked up, for larceny.

Swindler said he had seen the electric chair once when some inmates--"creeps," he called them--were carrying it through the prison.

"There's a joke that a fat man don't get as much current as a small man. So them little ones should worry about it a lot more than I do," he wrote.

Some schoolchildren had mailed cards to inmates, and Swindler said he wanted to thank them. He wondered if I would help him mail the children a handkerchief with a picture of the electric chair on it. I did not.

"Some say that I'm a little off," Swindler wrote. "I've been trying to prove my whole life that I'm sane."

By his own statement, Swindler didn't have much education. Still, he wrote his letters in cursive, and some were long. One was typed. He was a big man, 6 feet tall and almost 300 pounds. Merle Haggard's "Branded Man" was one of his favorite songs.

One day, I was enjoying the weekend in the hillside apartment where I lived alone in North Little Rock at the time. The phone rang.

"Hello."

"This is John Swindler," the caller said.

I don't scare easily but changed my phone number soon after that and never heard from him again except by mail and another phone call he made to the state Capitol when I was covering the Legislature.

I never met Swindler and lost contact with him after I moved to Illinois. I later read that he died at age 46 on June 18, 1990. He chose electrocution over lethal injection and was the last Arkansas inmate to die that way. Perhaps he relished the notoriety, the warden later said.

One of Swindler's neighbors on death row was Thomas Simmons, who wrote that he'd lived in a 7- by 10-foot cell, its walls "painted a sickly, peeling orange color." Still, conditions there were "fair enough," Simmons said. "I'm just passing through."

Simmons was in prison for murdering a police officer and three other people in 1981, several months before we began corresponding. A witness' lie had led to his conviction, he said.

Unlike Swindler, Simmons was smart and more careful with his written words. He passed his time reading, writing and watching television programs like Star Trek. He loved doing crossword puzzles--"the harder the better," he wrote, and listed works by Henrik Ibsen, Robert Heinlein and Goethe among those he had read in prison. A favorite was Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. "I have read it three times and I'm still not tired of it," he said.

"I read the newspapers from front to back," except for the classified ads, Simmons wrote. Peanuts, Garfield and Bloom County were among his favorite comic strips.

Simmons once told me that a nun had tried to help him while he was on death row. It would be many years before I learned of Helen Prejean, the nun and anti-capital punishment crusader portrayed in the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking. I wondered if she was the nun who had worked with Simmons.

On Dec. 31, 1990, Simmons died in his cell. Wrapped in a blanket on his bed, Simmons' body was found the next day, his throat cut with a knife made from a disposable razor. Authorities said Simmons had killed himself. Another inmate said Simmons had planned suicide if he didn't get a new trial rather than put his family through the ordeal of an execution. He was 47.

I've covered several murder trials. A few stand out, sometimes because of the testimony and, in one case, because of the way I dealt with the competition in the years before cell phones.

In 1982, an AP editor had assigned me to help cover the verdict in one of Arkansas' more sensational murder cases at the time--the trial of Mary Lee Orsini in the death of Alice McArthur, who was the wife of Bill McArthur, Orsini's attorney in another case.

A jury found Orsini guilty of capital murder. For me, still a rookie reporter, the challenge was how to call the verdict into the AP office before every other reporter beat me to one of the few pay phones in the courthouse.

For once, I had envisioned the scenario in advance. So I wrote a note saying "Out of Order" and stuck it on one of the pay phones before I went into the courtroom. Almost magically, the phone was free when I rushed back to it later.

Orsini was sentenced to life in prison without parole. She died of an apparent heart attack in 2003.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 11/24/2019

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