A Tale of Two Warrens

Among the 240 inmates who lived with me in the South Unit of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men, two had the same, somewhat unusual first name of Warren. Both Warrens shared other similarities besides name, though they are most remarkable for their differences. When I first met them, both had been down for about three years. Both had pled out to their crimes, avoiding trial. Both of their victims were their own wives. Both men have chronic depression. Both were medicated when they committed their crimes. There the similarities end.

Warren A. is illiterate. He suffers from the effects of an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning. Warren B. has a Master's Degree. Warren A. has worked at menial jobs. His most recent job was as restaurant kitchen help. Warren B. was a highly paid junior executive in an international computer products firm. Warren A. is a disheveled fiftyish man who looks somewhat worse for wear, someone your mother might call "a bum." He spends his time on his bunk or he plays cards in the common room. Warren B. is a well groomed, forty-something man with a shock of black hair, a youthful face, and an athletic build. He frequents the racquetball court in the prison yard. He plays chess in the South Unit's recreation room. He teaches science at the prison's high school for inmates.

Warren A. has been married and divorced several times. He's been getting treatment for chronic depression on and off for years. He shows no emotion when he talks about his crime. Several years ago he met and married a woman who was only a few years older than his own daughters from a previous marriage. His new wife had a chronic psychiatric condition, bi-polar disorder. They had a baby together.

"When she was on her meds, she was good," Warren says of his wife, "but, when she was off 'em she wasn't satisfied with me. She had to find other men to make her happy."

She was off her medication the day Warren found her in bed with another man. He had come looking for her at the house of a friend where she was supposed to be babysitting. He surprised the two of them in the bedroom. The other man fled. Warren went after his wife. She ran into the kitchen. He followed, hitting her, cursing her, pinning her to the wall. She fought back, kicking and scratching. There on the counter was a knife. Warren grabbed it and stabbed his wife in the chest. He says just once. The police say multiple times. She died there on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood.

Warren ran home and tried to hide in the nearby cemetery. The police soon found him there. There was no question of his guilt. He makes a half-hearted attempt to claim reasonable doubt. On the way home from the murder he had passed a former boyfriend of his wife heading toward the scene. "Who knows," he says, grasping for straws, "Maybe he was the one who finished her off. She had done him wrong, too." Faced with the possibility of first-degree murder charges and mandatory life in prison, he pled out to second-degree murder. He got 15 to 30 years in prison. His sister adopted his young daughter. He hasn't seen her since his incarceration. He shrugs, "I don't guess they want her to." He is also alienated from his other two children. It's just part of his life. It doesn’t seem to bother him.

Warren B. has a shy smile and a thoughtful air. He turns sadly serious when asked about his crime. About the time of the birth of his only child, his marriage began to fall apart. He and his wife went through a nasty divorce. His wife got the house, a large financial settlement and, worst of all, as far as Warren was concerned; she got custody of his young son. He spiraled into depression. He lost his job. His wife denied him visitation with his boy. One day in desperation, he parked his car across the street from his wife's home and waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy. Frightened by his behavior, his wife called the police and Warren found himself arrested and booked for stalking. Never having been in trouble with the law before, he was terrified and humiliated by the handcuffs, the routine jail strip search, the restraining order the judge imposed and the criminalization of what he thought was his legitimate desire to see his son.

Warren's whole world was falling apart. When he was back at his father's house his emotional condition deteriorated further. He became suicidal and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Released after nineteen days, he was still an emotional wreck, on multiple medications, and angry; angry at his wife and angry at the legal system. He took his father's handcuffs and handgun and drove to his wife's house.

"I wanted her to feel the same fear and humiliation I had," he says.

After kidnapping his wife and forcing her into his car, he made her strip to her underwear, handcuffed her and drove her around for four long hours. Mostly they said nothing. Several times he threatened to kill her, and the judge and anyone who stood between him and his boy. When his anger was spent, he released her, shaken but physically unharmed. He helped her to get back home.

He was arrested and agreed to a "naked plea," one that admits guilt with no stipulations placed upon what sentence the judge may impose. Since he was out on bail at the time of the offences, the judge chose to "enhance" his sentences, then "stack" them by imposing them consecutively. He was sentenced to twenty to forty years here at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men. Because of the length of his sentence, he requested a review by the Sentence Review Board, a three judge panel that has the power to modify sentences imposed by Superior Court justices. His wife showed up at the board hearing to retell her trauma and speak against any reduction in his sentence. Instead of listening to Warren's plea for clemency, the board increased his sentence by another five to ten years, leaving him with a virtual life sentence.

What conclusions can be drawn from this exercise in comparison and contrast? It is obvious that both of these men have done horrible things. There is no excuse for their actions. Both deserve to suffer severe consequences for their crimes. But, how do we explain the discrepancies in their sentences: 15 to 30 years for a crime of passion that left a woman dead; 25 to 50 years for a crime of passion that threatened but caused no physical harm? Obviously, judges are given a lot of latitude in choosing a sentence.

There is another implication here. As the Wild West saying goes, "Dead men tell no tales." In the culture of victimization, a dead victim is less dangerous than a live one who can show up at a sentencing hearing and keep showing up to cry for vengeance from judges who do not seem to be willing to say when enough punishment is enough. In a system of justice that allows the stacking of multiple sentences, one murder charge pled down to second-degree carries less risk of time than multiple charges of criminal threatening, assault and kidnapping. After all, you can only kill a person once.

I do not presume to know how much punishment is enough for someone who has done what either of these men did. I do think I know which one of them is more amenable to rehabilitation, if rehabilitation were something valued by our system of justice. I am certain that the message in this tale of two Warrens is not one that any civilized society would choose to send.