Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Fragile Mind Meets Blunt Object In Court

Weighted words dominated most press accounts of Johnny Okie’s first trial day Monday. AJ Higgins at MPBN called him a college dropout; the MaineToday site has him “butchering” his victims. What is happening to journalism when we have to go to the television, WCSH6 for a reasoned account of what happened?

There one could find that his lawyers signal that they will have to bludgeon the jury with the level and duration of his mental illness. Apparently it is not enough that Johnny and his family suffered this tragedy for the better part of a decade. He must be shown to have been deeply ill in the days leading up to the murders. A lawyer I know says, “Courts don’t do nuance.”

Saturday I’ll attend the annual party in Wiscasset where Johnny’s father, John Okie, told me five or six years ago how ill Johnny was, how worried John and his wife Karen were, and described the measures they were taking to address Johnny’s behavior.

That fall John and Karen enrolled Johnny in Kents Hill, a prep school northwest of Augusta. They drove to school better than an hour every weekend and, as I recall, sometimes during the workweek. I remember thinking how they passed my house every time and wished they would stop in, knowing well that their errand proved too serious for a chat and a cookie. Their lives were consumed by Johnny’s mental illness, his behavior and his education.

I’m guessing John felt comfortable talking with me about mental illness because he had been privy to our family’s experience with my dad’s bipolar disorder and had seen us survive relatively unscathed. John may have said schizophrenia, I don’t remember, but I know that John and Karen felt burdened by not knowing whether they were doing the right thing.

John Okie had been a family friend since my parents, sister and I moved to Wiscasset in 1972. I worked as a clerk in a pottery/used bookshop he and Peter Green shared on Main Street. John lived across the street. In those early days, John’s dog Wally and my sister’s used to disappear on days long jaunts, probably running deer, and come back gimpy and whipped by brambles.

That horrible summer day in ’07 when it became clear that John had been killed, I had just started a job as assistant newspaper editor for the Lincoln County News. During those early days in the newsroom we didn’t know Johnny’s connection to Aleigh and only had rumors about his whereabouts the night John was killed. As the police let us in on the facts, they confounded us. Why had Johnny been free for six days? How was the accident on the Wiscasset Bridge in the days before Aleigh’s death connected? What clues did it offer to Johnny’s deteriorating condition?

Now that nearly a year and a half has gone by, I believe the exercise taking place in court and in the press this week and next is a kind of torture for all concerned with no redeeming feature.

The trial certainly gives the pro-death penalty contingent something to rant about—hardly a productive use of taxpayer dollars. Johnny is nightmarishly ill and has been for at least half his life. Punishment will make no difference to him and I have to believe Aleigh Mills’ parents cannot have vengeance on their minds, despite the brutality of their daughter’s end.

If there is any justice this young man will live in a hospital for the rest of his life, safe in a place where he can hurt no one else, medicated against the demons that led him to kill those he loved.

No comments: