Chris Uggen's Blog: what was the bellingham murderer thinking?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

what was the bellingham murderer thinking?

The seattle times has been following the case of michael mullen, who confessed to killing two registered sex offenders in bellingham, washington. i wrote about the murders last month, suggesting that public availability of specific addresses and offense details might be a net loss to public safety. mullen wrote a letter to reporter mike carter at the times, which (after some hand-wringing) it decided to publish online in mullen's original hand:

"[s]hould we post the letter itself online? Most who had read it said yes. Here's why: Reading the handwritten letter was a different experience from reading the story. It was methodical. The penmanship doesn't change. Mullen thought out the message just as he said he had thought out the crime. If you are concerned, scared or just fascinated, you want to understand what he had to say. ... "Certainly no one in his right mind would agree with vigilante justice," Carter said, "but people are very frustrated about how society deals with sexual predators." He added, "the overarching sentiment (from readers) has been one of people agreeing with Mullen's sentiments, if not his methods."

is there a real danger that publicizing mullen's motivations will lead people to agree with his sentiments or inspire other vigilantes? as "p.s. punk" predicted in a comment to my earlier post, mullen spins a tale of righteous slaughter and wishes to make himself a martyr. he claims that he went to "interview" the three former sex offenders living at the house, checked their IDs to confirm identification, and let one of them go after he "showed remorse or guilt." he claims that the two he killed "blammed [sic] their victims — they showed NO remorse."

such statements show how easily a vigilante assumes the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. i'm most interested in how his comments reveal the dark side of community notification. here's what the confessed killer said on the subject:

"the State of Washington, like many states now lists sexual deviants on the Net. And on most of these sites it shares with us what sexual crimes these men have been caught for, and most are so sick you wonder how they can be free ... In closing, we cannot tell the public so-and-so is 'likely' going to hurt another child, and here is his address then expect us to sit back and wait to see what child is next"

mullen clearly blames the victims for their deaths, but he also implicates institutions that make the information public (i'm sure he'll be pointing other fingers elsewhere as we get closer to his trial). i'm working on a project now coding the information provided by each state on sex offenders and other felons. reading through the individual case records that some states post, one cannot help but see them as "sick" monsters. one sees a bad picture, a horrific description of a crime, and an address. even if the acts are decades old, there is typically little countervailing information that would help us understand their current circumstances or the extent to which they pose a threat to public safety today.


At 8:43 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

This may be slightly off topic, but am I the only one bothered by the fact that the reporter solicited these comments from Mullen while he is in jail awaiting trial? That strikes me as somewhat unethical and, in a way, as creating this piece of the story and the accompanying controversy. Perhaps these and other 'moral issues' are why I never chose to put my journalism degree to use...

At 9:38 PM, Anonymous chris said...

i think i understand your moral issues. i guess that's what i meant about hand-wringing -- the times wants to have it both ways (taking the journalistic high road *and* splashing the story on page one). also, mullen's letter makes me wonder what kind of representation he's getting. as the recent vang case in wisconsin makes clear, it is tough to mount a serious defense after a public confession.

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think if Mullen succeeds at one thing he will succeed at making people think about how we are handling these most serious offenders. There will always be recidivism without a "lock em up and throw away the key" approach, because we will never be able to perfectly predict who will re-offend, it just escalates the problem because these crimes shock and offend the public's sense of safety. No one is likely to feel afraid in their neighborhood knowing a repeat car theif lives down the block. But if we are going to steer away from policy's like the ones adopted during Reagan that put away people selling marijuana for 100 year sentences, we need to be more sure of the people we are releasing. The public would have little problem seeing a child molester serve a life sentence, but while it may be the easiest solution, it may not be the best.

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon = Adam O'Neill =)

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous chris said...

thanks anon'o'neill. i think there's a good case to be made for greater selectivity on both the front-end and the back-end of the system. one of the sadder developments in criminal justice has been the decline of discretionary parole. parole boards were never perfect, but it seemed to work better than creating long determinate sentences for everybody, or cutting people loose with no supervision after they "max out."


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