Eradication of Smallpox

Eradication of Smallpox
Chapter Two

A Poor Case for Opponents

I had never paid much attention to the details of real-life murder. When I thought about it at all, it took the form of Agatha Christie-type stories. Even my exposure to this kind of fiction was limited. I did, like everybody else, enjoy a good whodunit on TV or at the movies. Stuff like Murder on the Orient Express or The Maltese Falcon. Real crime, I had long been convinced by my father, was perpetrated by powerful people with armies, slaughtering countless souls in scenes of unimaginable horror, leaving little mystery about who the killers were, and with little thought of justice or chance of retribution.

I found individual murders, even modern serial killings that people found so fascinating these days, to be not only unseemly but also for the most part uninteresting cultural perturbations. I never bothered reading the daily crime serials that made up a good part of the news. Even deaths and murders involving celebrities were, for me, uninteresting, and I paid little attention. This attitude, I realized, was not a great background for an incipient crime reporter, and I told myself that I really would have to pay more attention. I recalled the words of my first-grade teacher, Miss Hopkins. “Edward,” she would often say, wrongly assuming that Ned was short for Edward, which it’s not. “Edward, you’re a bright boy, but you have a messy mind.” The woman was perceptive, I reflected, as I made my preparations to leave town.

Everything I knew about Redway was from Barbara Solomon’s stories and from the two earlier accounts that were in the file. Redway and two others, known as the Reach brothers, had broken out of prison and gone on a killing spree that stretched across fifteen days, three states, and six victims. The nature of the killings was particularly brutal and mindless. The two earlier accounts in the file laid out the crime spree in excruciating detail that focused primarily upon the murders and the ensuing capture. Solomon’s articles, while recounting the original saga, focused primarily on the battle between the district attorney’s office and opponents of capital punishment who were seeking a stay of execution. Woven into her account in the form of dialogue between the two parties were all the details of the crimes and much of the pathos from both sides of the issue.

The main protagonist on the punitive side was assistant district attorney Roger Burwick. Had I not been given some insight into Barbara Solomon’s point of view, I would have thought her work demonstrated a marvelous mosaic of journalistic objectivity, but as I reread parts of the narrative, a feeling emerged that Burwick, and his words, were used as a literary device—a strawman, to balance the issues presented by the other side. Solomon recapped the story of the eighteen-year-old crime in graphic and passionate detail, using Burwick’s words almost exclusively. Interviews with Redway’s attorney, his family, and Redway himself provided a counterpoint to Burwick’s official stance. In one article, Burwick answered his critics by recounting how Redway killed a baby held between the legs of his pleading mother. At the end of the piece, Burwick was quoted as saying, “This is not a good case for the opponents of capital punishment.”

On the other side of the debate, the Reverend Dr. Shirley Moran of the West University Christian Church grounded her arguments in the New Testament. Her logic was basic: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Jesus is Love, that kind of stuff. When set against the fiery words of Burwick, the mood of the country, and Halloran’s seventy-seven percent, the Rev. Moran’s theology rang out as anachronistic—an old-fashioned holdover from a time passed. I could almost hear people saying, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that stuff before, but we’re way beyond that now.” Her persona emerged as rather bland, and she was by far the least dramatic figure in the articles, yet I felt a certain sympathy with the Rev. Shirley Moran that I did not feel for the others. Bland and armed only with homilies, she exhibited courage as she stood up to the righteous indignation of the majority. The only photo of Moran in the file showed a frail-looking middle-aged woman with short, light hair as she addressed her congregation. “Well, Shirley, you’re probably the only player in this minor drama with honest motives,” I found myself saying out loud, briefly suspending my mistrust of religious organizations.

Tuning from the particulars of my assignment, I addressed the issue of fashion: What does one wear to an execution? Is it like a funeral, warranting a dark suit, perhaps? It’s the West, so maybe jeans and a denim shirt, the working-class-hero look? Who could I ask? My father would have known. Halloran, maybe. “Ah, by the way, Mr. Halloran, what does a budding crime reporter wear to an execution?” In the end, I compromised on khaki slacks, a blue button-down Oxford shirt, and a tweed sport coat. I put a tie in my pocket just in case it later seemed appropriate.

By then, it was late afternoon and I wanted to get on the road, having made most of my fashion decisions. I grabbed a notebook and my laptop computer, then drove toward the town of Florence, wanting to get there before dark. Taking the Catalina highway to state route 77, I drove north twenty miles from Tucson and turned west on the Florence highway. To my back were the Catalina Mountains, a light mist hanging over them. In front of me, the lowering sun emerged from beneath the orange cloud cover. Looking in my rearview mirror, I saw an almost perfect rainbow framing the mountains, the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Later on, I would hear that this phenomenon was common, but at the time I took it to be an omen. An omen of what, however, I was not sure, but it added to the auspicious nature of my task. The creepy feeling began to return as I drove on. 

The Florence highway is a two-lane desert road that slowly gains altitude, providing vistas of lush desert vegetation. I continued to look into my rearview mirror as the rainbow faded and grew smaller as I increased my distance. On the first stretch, there were signs identifying a variety of Sonoran desert plants: palo verde tree, catclaw, mesquite tree, yucca, and barrel cactus all flew by as I read each sign as a diversion from my thoughts. Farther down the road, I passed the Tom Mix Monument, which is a memorial to an early cowboy movie star who was killed when he lost control of his sports car and drove into the dry river that now bears his name. 

For some reason, I stopped at the memorial. A two-dimensional bronze statue of Mix’s horse, Tony, was placed high on a pillar of native stones. The stationary Tony was riddled with pockmarks from the bullets of less famous Western gunslingers. I counted thirty-two—one for every year of my life. Tom Mix was from an earlier era than my cowboy heroes, but his name was familiar to me, as he represented the genre of early Western films. His name had become a dead metaphor for old cowboy movies. I winced at the unspoken pun, and the drama of the death I was about to cover returned. Now, at least, I had two omens to counterbalance any inevitability, the natural beauty of the rainbow at my back; fate and capricious death in the ghost of Tom Mix to my front. Whatever happened tonight would surely fall somewhere in between. “Don’t get morbid. It’s just an assignment,” I told myself with what I knew to be pseudo professionalism, and I got back into my car. As I drove on, I no longer looked in the mirror at Tom Mix or the rainbow.

Approached from the east, the Florence town limits sport a few abandoned buildings and lots of cactus I now knew to be teddy bear cholla thanks to the roadside instruction I’d received from the signage along the way. Moving on, I began to see some signs of civilization, mostly in the form of mailboxes clustered around the mouths of dirt roads; a few rooftops showed themselves in the distance above the desert vegetation. The sun was setting now and a yellow light heightened everything it touched. The fuzzy spines of cholla looked iridescent in the light. A large water tower sprouted from the horizon and grew steadily taller. It was my first view of the prison.

As I approached the Florence State Prison from the highway, I mused that it looked more like a giant farm, albeit one wrapped in chain-link fence capped by razor wire. The only motion was a lone tractor dragging a plow-like thing across barren red earth. The sun was now beneath the horizon, and the orange light had changed quickly to red. Then, just as quickly, all color drained away, leaving the grays to highlight only dark silhouettes. There was no sign of an entrance, so I drove around the perimeter of the fence. The farmland around the prison was extensive, and it took me far out into the desert. Various unnamed crops appeared and ended in geometric plots. Back around to almost where I had started was a break in the chain link with a drive leading to a group of buildings I took to be the entrance. It was approaching six o’ clock, and the winter light was almost gone.

As I approached, the end of the driveway looked more like a campground, or a swap meet, than it did a prison entrance. RVs of various sizes formed small enclaves, their windows bright and showing activity inside. I parked my car away from the others and, feeling very much like an intruder, got out. Lawn chairs sat around folding tables, the scenes lit by gas lanterns. Coffee brewed on camp stoves. Small groups of people talked quietly, warming themselves with propane heaters. There was little laughter. Although I was met with eye contact and a number of somber smiles, no one seemed curious as to who I was.