law, true crime

A mom is too young to watch an execution…

For a long time, I’ve disliked the “tiered adulthood” system we have in the United States. I remember when I was a young woman, many states made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink a beer. I thought it was crazy at the time. After all, in most cases, an 18 year old is considered an adult. An 18 year old can, for instance, sign up for the military and fight, kill, or die for their country. 18 year olds are allowed to vote, although some Republicans would like to change that after the most recent midterm elections. An 18 year old who commits capital murder can be sentenced to death, if he or she is in a death penalty state. And there have been many 18 year olds who have gotten married, had children, or both.

The list of things an 18 year old can legally do in the United States is pretty long. They are, by and large, truly considered members of the majority. I can even understand why the law exists that forbids people under 21 from legally drinking alcohol, given that the United States has such a poor public transportation system in so many areas, and people who are as young as 16 years old are allowed to drive by themselves. Medical studies have shown that a person’s brain and judgment haven’t fully developed until they are about 25 years old. Therefore, a person who is 21 might be less likely to drive drunk… although judging by the many videos that exist on YouTube, I can see that plenty of middle aged and older people still haven’t gotten the message.

Same thing goes for tobacco consumption. Since December 20, 2019, the minimum age at which it’s legal for a person to purchase or possess tobacco products is now 21 in all 50 states. That probably makes sense, since it might deter young people, whose brains are still developing, from picking up a dirty, nasty, expensive, and unhealthy habit, and dying too young of lung cancer. On the other hand, the smoking habit is a money maker for tobacco states, and it also helps cull the human race. Seriously… this was a topic we discussed when I was earning my master’s degree in public health. When many more people smoked, they tended to die younger, which helped ease the burden of our aging population somewhat. Now that smoking is less popular, people are living longer. Of course, not everyone who smokes like a chimney dies young, and when those people get sick, they really get sick. It costs more to take care of them. But then, everybody dies, right? And who needs another “nanny law”? Believe it or not, Trump was the president who signed the “Tobacco 21” legislation, making the minimum age for tobacco consumption a federal law. That was one thing he did right, I guess.

But a person can still do some pretty major stuff when they turn 18. In many cases, an 18 year old is considered a legal adult, and a full fledged member of the majority. That’s why I was puzzled yesterday, when I read about 19 year old Corionsa “Khorry” Ramey, a young mom from Missouri who was just denied the right to attend her father’s execution.

Ramey was just two years old when her father, 37 year old Kevin Johnson, went to prison after he was convicted of first degree murder. In 2005, Johnson was found guilty of killing Kirkwood, Missouri, 43 year old police sergeant and married father of three, William McEntee. For that crime, Johnson is scheduled to pay the ultimate penalty— execution by lethal injection at 6pm tonight at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri.

Even though he’s been in prison for most of Ramey’s life, Kevin Johnson has somehow managed to be an involved parent to his daughter. Throughout the years, Ramey and Johnson have kept in touch through letters, phone calls, emails, and regular visits. They have developed a close bond, and Johnson requested that Ramey be one of the five people permitted to witness his execution. Nevertheless, because Ramey is only 19, she is barred from witnessing her father’s execution. Missouri law prohibits people under age 21 from attending executions. Federal Judge Brian Wimes refused to make an exception for Ramey, who is, by most accounts, a legal adult. Ramey is also the mother of a newborn son. Mr. Johnson did get to meet his grandson last month.

In a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), attorneys argued that the state law violated Ms. Ramey’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The complaint ACLU attorneys filed on Ms. Ramey’s behalf requested the court to stop the state from executing Johnson unless Ramey was permitted to attend as a witness. I suppose it’s possible that the ACLU lawsuit was one tactic used to prevent the state from executing Mr. Johnson. Johnson’s attorneys have also tried to stop tonight’s execution. They don’t deny that Johnson is guilty of murdering Sergeant McEntee, but have argued that racial discrimination played a part in the prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of Kevin Johnson.

The aspect of this case that really gave me pause, though, was reading that Ms. Ramey’s mother was killed when Ramey was just four years old, and that she had witnessed her mother’s death. While I’m certain that state ordered execution is a horrible thing to witness, the argument that Ramey is “too young” to see it is kind of ridiculous, as she’s already seen her mother die when she was a small child. Granted, the law is for everyone to follow, and it wouldn’t be right to ignore it in just one special case. But why set the minimum age at 21, if an 18 year old is an adult in most aspects of life in the United States? If Ramey were so inclined, she could join the military and see her comrades die in battle. She could be convicted of a capital crime herself and be executed at an age younger than 21. Why is 21 considered the “magic age” for witnessing something like this?

According to KOMU.com, Mr. Johnson was himself just 19 years old when he killed Sergeant McEntee. On July 5, 2005, police officers, including McEntee, were investigating a vehicle that was believed to belong to Johnson. Johnson had outstanding misdemeanor warrants and was believed to have violated his probation for assaulting his girlfriend. The police had come to his home to serve a warrant for his arrest. Johnson had seen the police officers approaching, and woke his 12 year old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long. He told the boy, who suffered from a congenital heart defect, to go next door to their grandmother’s house. Bam Bam ran to their grandmother’s house, but then collapsed and suffered a seizure. McEntee had allegedly held back Bam Bam’s mom, as the boy convulsed; he later died at a hospital. Johnson blamed McEntee for his brother’s death.

Later that same evening, McEntee returned to the neighborhood to investigate unrelated reports of fireworks being shot off. At that point, McEntee encountered Johnson again, and Johnson was enraged over the sudden death of his little brother. He pulled out a gun and shot McEntee several times, which resulted in the police officer’s death. Years later, in an interview, Johnson took responsibility for the murder and admitted that he couldn’t blame McEntee for his brother’s untimely demise.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned the fact that medical research has shown that human brains are incompletely developed until around age 25 or so. Johnson’s lawyers argued that at age 19, Johnson’s brain and sense of judgment weren’t fully developed when he murdered McEntee. They also mention racism, which I’m sad to say, is still a very real thing.

Personally, I am against the death penalty in most cases. I think it’s an appropriate penalty when a person is clearly so unhinged that they will pose a danger if they are ever free again. The recent case of Darrell Brooks comes to mind; I watched and listened to him in court, and noticed that he had absolutely no remorse for killing six innocent people in a Wisconsin Christmas parade last year. He’s an example of a person whom I believe would not be reformed by prison and would think nothing of killing again if he felt provoked. Mr. Brooks was recently sentenced to six life sentences for murdering those people at the parade. Kevin Johnson committed his crime in a red state, where many people preach about the sanctity of life for the unborn, but have no compunction about allowing the state to kill already born people. Most already born people, of course, know what an execution is, and they often have family members and friends who will also suffer when they are executed.

I absolutely agree that Mr. Johnson needs to be punished for his crimes. I am glad to see that he took responsibility for what he did, and has been doing what he can to foster a relationship with his daughter. While I disagree that the death penalty is a the right punishment for most murder cases, I understand that Johnson killed a cop in a very red state, and very red states often penalize cop killers with the death penalty. I do think, however, that if the state is going to execute a man for a crime he committed when he was 19, the state should allow legal adults– that includes people over age 18, which Khorry Ramey is– to witness executions. And while an execution is not something I would ever want to witness myself, I can’t speak for everybody. Obviously, Khorry Ramey thinks she’s old enough and can handle it. Since she’s an adult and a parent herself, the court ought to take her wishes into consideration.

And… let’s not even get into the crazy irony that is regular life in the USA right now, when any idiot can carry a gun into a Walmart and murder people in cold blood. Our legal system is completed whacked.

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law, true crime

A routine traffic stop turns deadly… and now a man is on death row…

Yesterday, while we were waiting for Arran’s chemo appointment, I found myself watching a video about a true crime that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 29, 2020. I didn’t seek out this video and, in fact, hadn’t even heard of this case before yesterday. I landed on this video entirely by chance, and was about halfway through it before I realized how shocking this case is. It made me realize why police work is so very dangerous, even when it seems like a traffic stop is totally mundane.

It was about 3:00 am on that fateful June night. David Anthony Ware was driving a car that had expired tags. He also ran a stop sign and failed to yield to Officer Aurash Zarkeshan, who then turned on his lights to signal to Ware that he was being stopped. David Ware pulled over, and Officer Zarkeshan began to question him, asking for identification, proof of insurance, and other information. At first, the stop seems to be going on in a routine manner, although Ware is clearly eager to be on his way.

Zarkeshan checks Ware’s background and finds that he has a police record and is a convicted felon, which Ware claims was supposed to be expunged. Soon, Sergeant Craig Johnson is on the scene. Zarkeshan asks Ware to step out of the vehicle. Ware then becomes agitated and uncooperative. He demands to speak to Zarkeshan’s supervisor, who happens to be Sergeant Johnson. Johnson identifies as Zarkeshan’s boss, and demands that Ware get out of the car. Ware continues to refuse to get out of the vehicle, so Johnson starts to yell at him, his voice growing more and more forceful and angry. He threatens to use his Taser and Mace. In spite of that, Ware doesn’t comply, probably because he was a convicted felon, and he knew that if he got out of the car, the police would find his gun, and that would mean going to jail. If he was under the influence of drugs, that might have also contributed to his mental state.

I heard Sergeant Johnson’s insistent shouts turn to screams, as he uses profanity and deploys the Taser. Somehow, the device doesn’t manage to stun Ware into compliance, and neither does the Mace. Ware had prior drug charges and given that the Taser and spray weren’t effective, my guess is that he was under the influence of drugs during that stop. That would have also made him dangerous behind the wheel.

Ware then gets on his phone and calls his friend, Matt, who shows up as the traffic stop is truly escalating and both cops are trying to force Ware to get out of the car as he screams for help. Unfortunately, the police officers were so focused on getting Ware out of the car and Ware’s friend, Matt, on the scene, that they didn’t see Ware reach under the driver’s seat and pull out a handgun. Ware was able to fire a few rounds into the officers before they knew what happened. In the below video, the visuals are thankfully redacted, but you can hear Johnson start to say, “What the fuck.” as he realizes he’s been shot at close range. Ware shoots him again in the head. Zarkeshan was also severely wounded, but not killed, as Ware jumps into Matt’s car and leaves the two police officers for dead.

Ware’s friend, Matthew Hall, was charged with two counts of being an accessory to a shooting with intent to kill. He pled not guilty. Last year, Mr. Hall was convicted of both charges. He is now serving twenty-four years in prison. Prior to June 29, 2020, Mr. Hall had no criminal history. It just goes to show how, in a moment of poor judgment, a person’s life can be changed forever.

In May of 2022, Mr. Ware was convicted of the capital charge, first degree murder and shooting with intent to kill. He was also found guilty of shooting with intent to kill, possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, unlawful possession of a controlled drug with intent to distribute, and obstruction. I assume that “shooting with intent to kill” is separate from the capital charge, since a person can shoot another person, intending to kill them, but not actually succeeding in killing them. Ware did kill Sergeant Johnson, but he did not succeed in killing Officer Zarkeshan, hence the separate charge for his crime against the surviving officer.

At the end of Ware’s trial in April 2022, the jury recommended the death penalty. Judge William LaFortune agreed, and in May, Ware was sentenced to death, as well as life in prison for the shooting with intent to kill charge, 30 years for possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, 25 years for the drug possession charge, and one year for obstruction. There are also massive fines, which will probably never be collected. Ware was already scheduled for the death chamber in August of this year, but as is standard in these cases, there’s an automatic appeal. Ware’s attorney, Kevin Adams, filed documents in support of overturning the verdict. He said that in Oklahoma, there’s about a 50 percent rate of overturning death penalty punishments, while the prosecutor said that he hoped the penalty would “deter people” from disobeying law enforcement and using firearms against them.

Special thanks to the Line of Duty channel for sharing this video.

I played this video for Bill last night. Bill was horrified for the cops involved, and although he is mostly against the death penalty, he said he felt it might be justified in this case. Personally, I disagree, because I am more against the death penalty than my husband is. I really think it should be reserved for cases in which a person represents a truly severe danger to the public, such that releasing that person will result in more people being killed. Frankly, I would be more inclined to sentence someone like Darrell Brooks to death than David Ware. Brooks, to me, has obvious disdain for other people and clearly has no sorrow for what he did. He also killed more people in a less humane way, and injured dozens more people. That mindset won’t be fixed with rehab. I don’t think Brooks can redeem himself, as being the way he is is likely due to his personality. Ware, on the other hand, might be salvageable if he got clean.

Mr. Ware does not strike me as being as obviously cold and callous as Brooks is. Even though he could have avoided the escalation simply by complying with the cops, I can hear genuine fear and anguish in his voice as he screams for help. According to the US News & World Report:

“The truth is that when David Ware shot Officer Zarkeshan and Sgt. Johnson, he was in fear for his life,” Ware’s attorney Kevin Adams said. “Sgt. Johnson and Officer Zarkeshan beat David Ware, they kicked David Ware, they tased David Ware, they maced David Ware as he pleaded and begged for somebody to help him.

“And when it got to the point that he felt that he was about to lose his life, he shot Officer Zarkashan and he shot Sgt. Craig Johnson.”

Ware said that he meant to shoot the officers in their body armor in the hopes it would incapacitate them long enough for him to escape. But then he shot Sergeant Johnson in the head after both officers were on the ground.

Having watched and listened to the video a few times, I can agree with Kevin Adams that Ware “lost it” and the crime escalated because he feared for his life. Yes, he absolutely should have complied with the officers, and he should certainly be in prison for the rest of his life. But Ware probably hadn’t planned to hurt or kill anyone that night. He committed a driving infraction and was pulled over, and if his luck had been better, he would have gone home without taking anyone’s life. When he was threatened by the police officers, he probably did literally fear for his life. I’m not saying it was a credible fear that Ware would be killed by the cops, but I believe that he did experience that fear, and that influenced his extreme actions.

Darrell Brooks, on the other hand, clearly meant to hurt and kill people when he drove his SUV into a parade route at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. What he did was clearly premeditated, and he obviously had no fear or remorse whatsoever. He’s a very callous individual who seems to hate the world. To me, that indicates that Brooks is a lot more dangerous than Ware is. I think he would be a better candidate for execution than Ware is.

However, unlike Brooks, David Ware committed his crime in a red state, where the death penalty is strongly supported by the citizenry. He also killed a police officer, and in a lot of death penalty states, that will result in a death sentence. I doubt the death penalty in this case will deter anyone, though. These types of crimes often happen when someone is highly emotional and not thinking clearly. What might make this type of crime less likely to happen is if the United States got much more serious about gun control and limiting public access to weapons. But that will probably never happen in my lifetime. Even if it did, there are so many guns out there that it probably would take a long time before the public’s access to them would be diminished enough to make a difference.

I feel very sorry for Sergeant Johnson’s family, especially his wife and two children. He was clearly a brave man, and it’s obvious from the video that he didn’t want to use the Taser. He gave Mr. Ware multiple opportunities to comply, and warned him several times before deploying the Taser. Maybe it would have been better if he had been a little bit colder, and not given Ware a chance to prepare before popping him with the Taser. But I’m not a cop, so I really don’t know. And again, as is obvious from the video, there was a lot of emotion going on at the time of the shootings. All three of the men engaged in that fight were operating on high adrenaline and instinct, rather than rational thought. It’s truly a terrible thing that it turned out this way, as three men’s lives were forever altered and shortened, and one man’s life was ended way before his time should have been up.

Anyway… given how the death penalty is, my guess is that David Ware still has some time to spend thinking about what he’s done. I don’t think he intended to be a murderer, even though that’s how it worked out for him. If he hadn’t had a handgun in his car, he almost surely wouldn’t be on death row in Oklahoma. Darrell Brooks, on the other hand, strikes me as someone who would easily kill again if he ever walks free. Hopefully, the state of Wisconsin will keep Brooks put away for the rest of his life. And I have no doubt that Ware’s days as a free man are over, and he probably will be executed as planned.

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law, LDS, mental health, narcissists, true crime, YouTube

Lori Vallow Daybell is finally going to get her day(s) in court…

A few months ago, I read and reviewed a true crime book about notorious Mormon child killer, Lori Vallow Daybell. The book I read, The Doomsday Mother, by John Glatt, is about a woman who professed to be a devout Latter-day Saint. She was beautiful and charismatic… and apparently, she was also more than a bit crazy. Lori Vallow Daybell was, at one point in time, just a toxic person who did things like alienate her children from their fathers. She had her son from her second marriage, Colby Ryan, daughter, 16 year old Tylee Ryan, and her adopted autistic son, J.J. Vallow, and professed to be a dedicated, loving, devoted mother to them.

But then she got involved with Utah sexton and doomsday Mormon author, Chad Daybell. That combination– Lori’s high conflict, narcissistic, paranoid personality, mixed with the doomsday visions of Chad Daybell, proved to be deadly for her children, who were brutally murdered and buried in a pet cemetery on Daybell’s property. Daybell claimed to be preparing for the “end times”, and he wrote about his views in his books, of which Lori was a devout fan. Together, they would also bring about the death of Daybell’s first wife, Tammy.

Lori’s brother, Alex Cox, shot and killed Lori’s fourth husband, Charles Vallow. At the time of his death, Vallow was seeking to divorce Daybell, stating that she “had believed she had become a god-like figure responsible for ushering in the biblical end of times“. Cox claimed he shot Vallow in self-defense, and he was never charged for the crime. Cox later died of an apparent blood clot in his lung.

In February 2020, when Lori Daybell was arrested in Hawaii, and was later extradited to Idaho, she was deemed too mentally ill to stand trial. Now, she has finally been declared mentally sound enough to answer the criminal charges against her. After months of being confined in a mental health facility, Judge Steven Boyce, who had ordered Daybell to undergo treatment so that she could assist in her own defense, has declared her mentally fit enough to stand trial. She is now scheduled to be formally arraigned in court next week. She and her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, will stand trial together early next year.

A video reporting about Lori Daybell’s return to competency. Nate Carlisle explains this latest development.

The Daybells, who married in 2019, are being charged with conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder, in connection with the deaths of Lori Daybell’s children 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 16-year-old Tylee Ryan, as well as Chad Daybell’s first wife, Tammy Daybell. Ms. Daybell also faces charges in Arizona for conspiring to kill her fourth husband, Charles Vallow, with help from her now deceased brother, Alex Cox. Mr. Daybell has already pleaded not guilty to the charges, while Ms. Daybell hasn’t yet entered her plea. Last month, Judge Boyce denied Chad Daybell’s legal team’s request to have his case separated from Lori’s.

At this point, not much has been reported about Lori Daybell’s actual mental state or what treatment she has been undergoing. I can’t even imagine what mental healthcare providers had to do to get Lori Daybell ready to face the charges against her. I would like to know how one is deemed fit or unfit in cases like these.

I remember back on June 20, 2001 (my birthday), when Texas mom Andrea Yates was in the news for methodically killing her five children by drowning them in a bathtub, I had some sympathy for her. Yates, by most accounts, was a good person before she finally succumbed to mental health ravages caused by post-partum psychosis. She was legitimately and obviously mentally ill, and she couldn’t help the delusions that led her to kill her children. Hers was a case that certainly warranted an insanity defense. I can’t even fathom how truly awful it must have been for her to restore her sanity. Andrea Yates has even been offered the chance to leave the mental hospital, but she has declined to go.

I’m not nearly as sure about Lori Daybell. To me, she comes across as a woman with a very long history of hurting people. She probably was legitimately mentally ill when she was captured, but was she that ill in the years leading up to her violent crime spree? I really don’t know. I made a point of not following this case when it was hot news, but I am now interested in watching how it will go. I hope and expect that Lori and Chad will spend the rest of their lives in prison. I think that would be just, in this case. Their crimes were absolutely horrific, especially toward poor J.J., who was just a kid and was probably tortured before he died.

Hopefully, she will be tried in January 2023, but it will depend on Lori’s mental state, and whether or not it deteriorates.

I’ve mentioned before that the reason I didn’t want to follow this case closely was because Lori reminds me a bit of Bill’s ex wife, although there are definitely some differences between the two women. Ex, at least as far as I know, hasn’t committed murder. But some of their behaviors are eerily similar. I realize that there but for the grace of God go we.

J.J.’s bio grandparents, who are from Louisiana, are waiting with bated breath for the trial. They can’t wait stare her down at the trial.

My best wishes and good thoughts go to the people who have survived the horrifying crimes allegedly committed by Lori and Chad Daybell. I can’t even fathom how absolutely horrific this must have been for them. I know they look forward to seeing justice done. Chad Daybell will face the death penalty, but the prosecution hasn’t yet indicated whether or not they will seek the death penalty for Lori. Generally speaking, I am against capital punishment, but I must admit that I won’t lose any sleep if these two get sentenced to death. That doesn’t mean I would vote for it if I was a juror, since I think the death penalty is wrong. But if either of these two happen to get that sentence, I certainly won’t be attending any protests or writing any letters.

I think Lori and Chad Daybell are very sick people… but they are sick in a way that medicine can’t cure. I hope they won’t ever see the outside of a prison again.

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law, memories, nostalgia, YouTube

Repost: Our “senior trip” to the Virginia State Pen…

It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.

Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors.  I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip.  My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers.  We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go.  But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.

Here’s an interesting talk about the former penitentiary, which was demolished just after our visit in 1990. If this subject interests you, I highly recommend watching this video. The speaker, Dale M. Brumfield, is very engaging and this is a fascinating subject.

The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800.  If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished.  It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia. 

In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down.  There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place.  I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells, which you can see in the featured photo.  The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air.  The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant.  It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.

Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in.  They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will.  On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile.  A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility.  He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.

The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited.  I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities.  We also visited death row, which had also been vacated.  Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house.  They shouted and jeered at us.  I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block.  They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.

At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death.  Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles.  I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in.  Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny.  Virginia is a notorious death penalty state.  (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)

I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch.  Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place.  By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college. 

It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.  

Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.

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bad TV, fashion, good tv, memories, nostalgia

The “facts of life” one learns while watching The Facts of Life…

A few weeks ago, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to buy a few box sets of favorite TV shows from the 70s and 80s. I bought The Bionic Woman, One Day at a Time, and The Facts of Life. I’ve actually only seen a few episodes of The Bionic Woman, since it aired when we lived in England, and I don’t remember it being aired in syndication much. I did used to watch One Day at a Time when I was a kid, but missed the earliest episodes because I was too young when the show started, and then it really jumped the shark. I was a BIG fan of The Facts of Life, which was a spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes.

Most every kid my age loved Diff’rent Strokes, but I guess the powers that be decided that Charlotte Rae should have her own show. So they had her get a job at Eastland School, Kimberly Drummond’s boarding school in Peekskill, New York. Boom… suddenly, we had a successful sitcom revolving around the lives of girls who went to boarding school and wore frumpy uniforms all the time. The Facts of Life started off with a large cast of beautiful young girls with flowing hair… except for Molly Ringwald, of course, and Kim Fields, who played Tootie Ramsey, the token Black cast member. After the first season, the size of the cast was slimmed down, as the girls progressed through puberty and gained weight.

I loved the first few seasons of The Facts of Life. I liked it less when the girls were moved out of the school to work at Edna’s Edibles. Also, as is so common on shows about school, the students didn’t graduate on time. It seemed like they were Eastland students forever. And then Charlotte Rae left the show, and they brought in Mackenzie Astin, George Clooney, and Cloris Leachman. The last couple of seasons were practically unwatchable! I didn’t like it when the plot moved away from the school, though, because the school was so central to the show. Also, I think they made boarding school look like a lot more fun than it probably is in reality.

I kind of find the theme song annoying, catchy as it is. Alan Thicke and his ex wife, Gloria Loring, helped compose it, and Loring belts it out in an over-the-top, obnoxious way… not unlike the characters’ personalities.

But there were a few really good years on that show, I’m in the thick of them right now. The writers took on a number of ambitious topics that were very important in the 1980s. Imagine my surprise this week, as I waded through the third and fourth seasons, realizing that subject matter that was timely in 1981 and 1982, is still timely and important today. In seasons 3 and 4, The Facts of Life tackled:

  • suicide
  • abortion
  • book banning
  • underage drinking
  • rape and sexual assault
  • teen pregnancy
  • breast cancer
  • mental retardation (this is what it was called on the show, rather than one of the more politically correct terms of today)
  • physical handicaps (again, how it was described on the show)
  • racism
  • fanaticism
  • crash dieting
  • religion
  • sexism
  • cross cultural issues
  • bullying
  • adoption
  • marital affairs
  • teenage prostitution

The list goes on, as I have only just started season 4, and there were a total of 9 seasons before NBC finally pulled the plug. But as I was wasting the late afternoon hours yesterday, watching the episode about book banning, it occurred to me that, in some ways, we haven’t really gotten anywhere in the last 40 years. The plot was about how a bunch of parents got upset that their daughters were able to check out books like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which they felt didn’t promote the right message or values. I was suddenly reminded of the recent controversy surrounding the book, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which has had the effect of causing a bunch of people to buy and read the book in protest. I read Maus a few weeks ago, passed it to Bill, who finished it last weekend, and just today, he took it to work to lend to one of his co-workers.

If I recall correctly, I believe I decided to read Slaughterhouse Five when I was in high school, in part because it was mentioned on The Facts of Life as a banned book. I knew I liked Vonnegut’s writing, having read his short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, in the 9th grade. Sure enough, I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five very much. Then later, I decided to read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, because it was a banned book. My love for reading continues today, although it’s not as easy as it used to be, as my eyes aren’t as young as they once were.

Ditto, the episode about abortion, which was about how the character Natalie, played by Mindy Cohn, made up a story about a girl at Eastland who had an abortion. The story had the whole school buzzing, and soon parents were calling, demanding to know who the girl was. Natalie was threatened with expulsion, until a girl told her that she’d had an abortion. Natalie could have told the headmaster the girl’s name and saved her job as editor of the school paper. But she came clean and admitted she’d made up the story, protecting the girl’s identity. As the credits were about to roll, the headmaster said that he was relieved to “know” that abortion wasn’t an issue at Eastland. Of course, the audience knows better. Forty years later, we’re still fighting over abortion.

I even learned something about capital punishment in France, watching The Facts of Life. The character Geri, played by Geri Jewell, is the cousin of snobby rich girl, Blair Warner. She has cerebral palsy, and works as a comedienne. In one episode, she develops a romance with the school’s French teacher. He asks out Geri, and she says something along the lines of, “I don’t want to get my head chopped off.” She was referencing France’s famous guillotine, which was used to execute people. The French teacher says that France did away with the guillotine in favor of hanging.

I was surprised to hear that the guillotine hadn’t been abolished many years ago, so I decided to look up the device’s history, as well as the general history of capital punishment in France. I was very surprised to learn that the last time France used the guillotine was in 1977! I was five years old! The man who was executed was 27 years old and was originally from Tunisia. He was also missing part of a leg, due to a tractor accident in 1971. He was put to death in Marseilles in September 1977 for torturing and murdering a young woman, and forcing a couple of other women into prostitution. Oddly enough, I actually visited Tunisia in 1977. We lived in England at the time, and went to Tunisia to celebrate New Year’s.

In 1981, then French president Francois Mitterrand declared capital punishment illegal in France. It was formally abolished on February 19, 2007. But, up until 1981, the French constitution actually dictated that anyone who was executed in France would be killed by decapitation, or barring that, firing squad. Never having studied French myself, I don’t know much about its history, other than what I’ve seen personally, heard about in the news, or heard from friends. I have had the opportunity and great fortune to visit France many times, which is something I never thought would have happened in 1982. It seems like France was especially popular in America in the 80s! Back in those days, people didn’t travel as much as they do now… or did before COVID-19, anyway.

Even Russia and Ukraine were subjects of The Facts of Life back in the 80s. During the third season, Natalie’s Russian Jewish grandmother, Mona, came to visit her at school. Mona said she was from Ukraine, even though the name of the episode was “From Russia with Love”. In 1982, Ukraine was still part of the former Soviet Union, which, in those days, seemed like it would exist forever. Natalie found Mona overbearing and annoying, but once she and the other girls got to know her, they found out that she was a fascinating woman with many stories to tell. Watching that episode, especially given what is happening in Ukraine right now, and after having read Maus, was surprisingly poignant. Mona references being confronted by a rapey soldier in a corn field in Ukraine, as the Bolsheviks invaded during the Soviet-Ukranian War from 1917-1921.

Seventy years later, Ukraine decided to leave the Soviet Union, and there’s been trouble ever since. I have never been to Ukraine myself, but I have a friend whose wife is from there, and still has a lot of family there. I know that he and his wife and children are terrified for them. It seems that history is repeating itself. At the same time, I have known some fabulous Russian people, thanks to my time in Armenia, which is also a former Soviet Republic. In fact, that’s where I met my friend, who was working there after having served in the Peace Corps in Russia, back when Russia was briefly less menacing.

I remember that The Facts of Life was controversial to some people, especially during its most popular years. My former best friend’s mother would not let her watch the show. I seem to remember her mom was against the show because she happened to see the episode during the first season that referenced marijuana use. The show certainly didn’t promote the use of marijuana, but my ex friend’s mom was very conservative. She didn’t want her kid exposed to anything she was personally against. I seem to remember my ex friend was often doing things behind her mother’s back, and she was a lot more “experienced” in things than I was. My parents, by contrast, pretty much let me raise myself. We used to talk about how different our parents’ styles were, and we agreed that it would have been nice if there could have been a happy medium. My parents didn’t pay enough attention to me. Her parents, especially her mother, were too strict and intrusive. On the other hand, I don’t think her parents used corporal punishment as much as my dad did.

One thing I have noticed about The Facts of Life is that the characters could be very annoying, as well as very funny. My favorite character was probably Natalie, who was quick witted. I used to not like Jo (Nancy McKeon) much, because she alternated between being angry and snide, and being “vulnerable”. Now that I’m older, I appreciate that character more. I used to like Blair (Lisa Whelchel) more, although I still like Whelchel did a good job with her caricature of a spoiled princess. Tootie (Kim Fields) was pretty much always annoying to me, although she was pretty cute in the first season. During the show’s third and fourth seasons, Tootie did a lot of shrieking and whining. Some of the clothes were pretty hideous, too. Especially the knickers and gauchos… they brought back sad memories of childhood fashions.

But mostly, I’ve just noticed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I really have been surprised by how forty years after The Facts of Life was a hit show, we’re still talking about, and arguing about, the same things. But nowadays, we have many more than than three networks on TV, and audiences are more sophisticated. A show like The Facts of Life probably wouldn’t last today, even though the writers tackled some courageous plots back in the day. Maybe it would be a good thing for today’s youngsters to watch that show. Maybe they’ll learn its lessons better than we did. But really, the best seasons were the earliest ones… as is the case for most long running shows.

Well, I guess it’s time to wrap up this post and get on with my Friday. Last night, Bill made a “stuffed meatloaf”, which is a dish I cooked for him when we were dating. It was one of the many tricks I had up my sleeve that helped me win his heart. It came out of a great cookbook called Virginia Hospitality, which was a gift given to me when I graduated college in 1994. It was put out by the Junior League of Hampton Roads, and since I was born in Hampton, it really is a relic from my hometown.

My husband’s younger daughter is pregnant, and when Bill told her he was making a stuffed meatloaf, she said that sounded so delicious. She had questions about it. So I sent her a copy of the cookbook, which also has a great recipe for cheese souffles. Below is a link for those who are curious about it. It’s definitely my favorite way to make meatloaf. I’m glad Bill learned how to make it, too. I hope she enjoys the book. It’s a gift that is uniquely from her long, lost stepmother. She really doesn’t know me at all, but maybe a cookbook from my origins will be a place to start getting acquainted.

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