I had a weird experience the other day. A friend had been telling me about a painful and scandalous incident that happened in her small upstate town. A local man, the son of a well-respected family, had just returned to prison after a parole violation; he had been released after serving two-thirds of the sentence imposed for stalking and murdering a college girl who had rejected his amorous advances over twenty years ago.
This idea of parole got me thinking about Corey Arthur, a young man currently serving a twenty-five-year-to-life sentence in Stormville, New York for robbing and executing my graduate school friend, Jon Levin. As this May will mark the twenty-year anniversary of Jon’s death I wondered whether Corey remained incarcerated or had been paroled; I wondered whether he had even asked for parole and how he would fare in the world again if – when – it were granted. So I did what everyone does; I Googled his name, followed the links to a story, and what I saw stunned me – a photo of me standing with Jon and some classmates in front of the Junior Common Room at Trinity, Oxford. Big as life in Newsweek’s online edition, the photo accompanied an extremely long article and a thirty-minute video (also showing me and my dorm room at Oxford) oozing sympathy for the convicted killer and questioning everything I know to be true about Corey, Jon, and me.
Here is the truth that I know. Corey Arthur murdered Jon. He tortured him by cutting his throat repeatedly to encourage Jon to surrender his ATM code and after getting it and clearing the daily limit from the account, he placed a gun at the base of Jon’s skull and pulled the trigger. Then he walked away.
Unless Corey didn’t do it, a theory put forth by the young man himself for belief in and promulgation by the Newsweek reporter. And, of course, the author believes that Corey couldn’t have done it because he is “remarkably polite” to the reporter. When he telephones the reporter (as he does fairly often including during the delivery of the writer’s child) Corey “always” asks after the reporter’s wife “with an unhurried solicitude that makes the question more than perfunctory.” Whenever the writer visits him at Green Haven Correctional Facility, Corey “strides eagerly toward [him] as if [they] were old friends.” Evidently coldblooded killers are inconsiderate, unfriendly, and unconcerned about spousal wellbeing; ergo Corey cannot be a murderer.
Corey is not merely innocent but beatific in the face of miscarried justice; he is never “angry or given to self-pity” despite “maintain[ing] that he is not culpable of murder” insisting that “other men, whose names he will not tell . . . are the real killers.” Oh. Well, that explains it, then. The SODDI defense, as an ADA mocked it at trial. (It stands for “Some Other Dude Did It.”) Charles Manson used it. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald did, too. Corey Arthur says that he didn’t do it and because the reporter thinks Corey isn’t “dumb enough to call up his favorite teacher, leave a message on his answering machine, go to his Upper West Side apartment . . . torture and kill Levin . . . and then simply go to ground . . . “ it must be true. The reporter, a Dartmouth graduate, considers himself an exemplary judge of people, a better judge than those jurors who, like me, sat in the steamy courtroom absorbing the miserable trial testimony for days on end.
Not only is Corey smart, he is also “ready to receive compassion without exploiting those who offer it.” Evidently that is because he “writes poetry” and draws “sinuous and lush, dreamy but precise” things that remind the reporter “of the great Mexican muralists.” The reporter is attempting to help Corey publish a graphic novel because “we both believe his life is rife with material for such an enterprise.”
Graphic is indeed the word. It doesn’t get much more graphic than what Corey did to Jon literally and to the rest of us figuratively.
After finishing reading, I played the video that sharpens and deviates slightly from the article’s innocence thesis. In the film, Corey never says that he didn’t kill Jon; rather, after extolling Jon as a “cool” teacher, he professes that he was torn apart emotionally by a glance at Carol, Jon’s mother, at the trial and he reads us the text of an unanswered letter of apology he sent to Jerry, Jon’s father. He is distraught that he has brought such calamity and loss upon them, an interesting perspective for someone who didn’t murder their son.
The interviews (of one of our classmates and one of our professors) are edited so sharply that they express the movie’s thesis – regardless of who actually slit Jon’s throat and blew away most of his skull, Jon brought it about himself by failing to respect professional boundaries by attempting to befriend Corey after he dropped out of school. Evidently, Corey is an expert at “receiv[ing] compassion” but I suspect that there was more “exploitation” than the author wishes to see.
I understand the concept of the freedom of the press. I understand that an author must gain the trust of his subject if he hopes to learn anything new. I understand that a writer’s only responsibility is to tell the truth as he sees it. What I don’t understand is why an investigative journalist would investigate so narrowly that he sees nothing but a dark and slender tunnel, the only light provided by the flickering candle of manipulation held by the inconsistent man sitting behind the bars and aching to get out . . . unless, of course, the writer was searching not for the truth but for the confirmation of his own prejudices.
The photograph and video contain images of twenty-two other people besides Jon that the journalist chose not to interview. It cannot be that he couldn’t identify the rest because each of us autographed the border of the photo. It cannot be that he couldn’t find us because New York University’s Alumni Fund’s endowment requests reach all of us several times every year; most of us are on Facebook (thanks, Mark Zuckerberg!); the majority of us teach at public schools in the New York Metro area and our names appear on District websites; some of us are published writers and can be found by Googling as easily as I found the article about Corey. No, this reporter knew what he intended to say and he said it; he needed no dissenting opinions and therefore he sought none. He saw what he wanted to see, nothing more.
Nearly twenty years have passed. Gallons of ink have been spilled and hours of videotape processed and the song of tragedy continues, entrapping all of us in the echo of the events of May 30, 1997. I don’t think it will ever end.