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Crime, punishment ... and hope?

NCR Staff
Tucson, Ariz.

The most recent photograph she has of John Patrick is more than a decade old, a black-and-white picture on the refrigerator door. It's among the color photographs of family members Kathy Norgard sees every time she goes into the kitchen.

John Patrick she sees in person perhaps twice a month, when she visits him at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, where he is serving life for a double murder.

Not that his life will necessarily be a long one -- at the time we talked at the Norgards’ modest ranch-style home here, John Patrick Eastlack (Norgard has remarried) had barely survived a brutal knife attack in the prison library.

Eastlack’s story, of murder, death row, his finally revealed fetal alcohol syndrome, reprieve and life imprisonment is one with the continuing stream of concerns about the U.S. penal system’s increasing severity, mandatory punishments and lack of adequate public oversight. These are issues even conservative commentators and jurists are becoming concerned about.

The darkness in Norgard's heart, as a punishment-driven bureaucracy detached her son from the world even though it seemed that he was dying, provides disturbingly clear insight into a tightly closed universe. So does her bewilderment and frustration over a penal system that has closed all “windows of hope” on those inside.

Eastlack's reprieve is a grim reminder -- as science understands more about behavior -- that society still exercises, through capital punishment, its urge to sever and not merely separate the criminal's life from its own. In the hospital emergency room, Norgard had been able to hold her son, John Patrick, touch him, for the first time in several years. But only because the medical team thought he was dying.

The first time she’d held him was almost 30 years earlier, when he was 16 months old, a Minnesota bundle in a blue snowsuit with white boots. She and her husband, Robie Eastlack, unable to have more children after the birth of their daughter, Sonda, had decided on adoption through a private agency.

John, then named Perry, was in the process of being bumped into yet another foster home. The Norgards had plenty of love to share and no doubts. They might have had doubts had they known his birth mother was a teenage drinker, binging herself into stupors only a hospital emergency room could handle.

The son they adopted was a cuddly smiling boy who grew into a child who always smiled and never complained. He was never violent, never rough, yet “never learned to do what was needed. He would know it, then it would be gone.”

John’s bad choice

When the adoptive parents asked his teachers and others about his behavior, they would be told, “John makes bad choices,” said Norgard. Yet no one seemed able to help him make the right ones. By the time he was 7, the demands of constantly focusing on the boy’s unpredictable behavior had wrecked his parents’ marriage and risked estranging the extended family.

As a teen “he began forging checks, doing things like that,” said Norgard. “It got bigger than our family. We tried residential treatment. We tried him living with my brother. When he was 16, he got sent to a youth facility.”

By this time, Kathy had remarried. Don Norgard, a former military colonel, “had very different ideas about raising kids. He has three children of his own -- but he's been a wonder sticking by John.”

When John Patrick was sent to the youth facility, “I was just devastated. I bottomed out,” she said. “In those days there was still some element of treatment for kids -- I don't know what happens now. So again we trudged up there. We were part of family counseling. I was worried about attachment issues. I'd learned something.”

For years she worked as social worker. By this time she had her doctorate in clinical psychology. After a year, Eastlack had a pass to come home. “It was December, when you can have a fire. After dinner he sat on the couch in front of that fireplace,” said Norgard, pointing, “ and said, ‘You know, Mom, I really want to come home. I really want to finish high school, get a driver’s license, get a girlfriend.’ I know he meant that.” But within a few months of coming home, Eastlack, with another youth, stole a car, went on a joy ride, was caught and sent back to detention.

He stayed until he was 18, “and by that time in Arizona,” said Norgard, “they're considered adults whether they are or not.”

Released, he moved in with his dad, now deceased. “We were worn out. My marriage was pretty strained. My husband was angry, and I was depressed.”

Said Norgard, “I kept believing in this concept of ‘choice.’ I somehow accepted this premise we were being given that that's what it was -- he was making bad choices.” Never mean or violent, “but always on the edge,” she said.

Over the next few years he was in and out of courts and prison. He was in the Douglas, Ariz., prison, one with double wires and a very high fence, for credit card fraud. “He had some sort of relationship with a young female guard. She actually called me,” Norgard said.

“The next thing I knew,” she said, “she was fired, and John got sent to lockdown as a punishment for an inmate-staff relationship. We got a letter from him in lockdown. Something had snapped in him. It sounded like he'd been broken. He didn't know where he was or what had happened to him.”

Talking really crazy

In 1989 he was transferred to Tucson, to a less secure facility. Eastlack was talking “really crazy stuff,” said his mother, “saying he wasn't really a prisoner, but an informant, that he had a car and could leave anytime. And a few days later, with another man, he did.”

They walked through the desert.

Eastlack broke into a house and had Jell-O. The authorities were flashing his picture on the television news. A few days later, still on the loose, he called home. He said he was in New Mexico. “Don and I told him he needed to come back, he was making matters worse,” she said.

It turned out he was in Tucson.

He went to a house where a couple in their 80s, Kathryn and Leicester Sherrill, had just returned from shopping. He knocked on their door and asked to use their phone, saying his Jeep had broken down in the wash.

“While he was in the house on the phone,” said Norgard, “and no one will ever really know for sure what happened -- the couple saw his picture on the TV and threatened to turn him in.

“A story he tells is that Mrs. Sherrill threatened him with a fireplace poker, and he just lost it. He severely beat the couple,” Norgard said, “put one of them bleeding in a room with a towel, the other in a room with a respirator, barricaded their doors, ripped out the phone so they could not call for help, left with their car keys and drove to Texas. He said they were still alive when he left.”

Norgard was in her car at a Tucson intersection when she heard the radio announcement that her son was wanted for a double murder. She was completely stunned. “This town turned into a military operation -- road blocks, everything. He was in Texas, back to being a thief, stealing from department stores, going with girls, partying.

‘America's Most Wanted’ did a story. Someone saw him on TV and turned him in.”

The trial was a media circus, said Norgard. It was not helped by the fact that Eastlack rarely stopped smiling and posturing. The press dubbed him, “The Grinning Killer” and “Smiling Jack.”

His court behavior was inappropriate. As his only defense, Norgard said, his lawyers put him on the witness stand.

The day before Thanksgiving, 1990, Eastlack was convicted of the murders and sent to the county jail to await sentencing.

It was a long year and a half. And a bizarre one.

During the arrest and trial, the media gave him a lot of attention. When it died away he kept inventing things to attract them back. “He'd call them up,” said Norgard, “and the media could get access whenever they wanted.” Eastlack boasted he would escape; the authorities never let him outside.

“I don't think I ever actually came to,” said Norgard. “It was such a shock that anyone in your family was able to do such a thing. I wasn't able to approach the Sherrill family.

In your heart you believe that in some way you've done it, because they're a part of you. You have your own nightmares. I think it was just before sentencing that we realized this thing we were in.”

It was 1992. Eastlack was sentenced to death. Arizona had just performed its first execution, a re-introduction of the death penalty, fought at every step by an ecumenical group headed by Episcopal and Catholic bishops.

Norgard organized her own protest, SOLPAY -- Sanctity of Life, People Against Executions. She was outside holding a candle at that first execution. “I'd always been opposed to the death penalty,” she said. “I'd always known capital punishment was wrong morally.” But now it was real beyond imagining.

Meanwhile, Msgr. Edward Ryle of the Phoenix diocese, through the Arizona Catholic Conference, was attempting to push anti-death penalty legislation. The version passed calls for leniency only in cases of mental retardation.

Ryle had already met Norgard, who was constantly on the stump giving speeches and appearing on panels, and he had her testify.

“She did a great job. So moving, and this was when her son was still on death row,” said Ryle. “It was really absolutely powerful. It was the saddest sight,” he said.

Obsession or calling?

Norgard said she was fixated on the death penalty issue. “It was what I thought about all day long, what I dreamt about at night. I was singularly occupied with it,” she said. “My daughter got married during this time. She said, ‘Mom, I feel you're not at my wedding.’ I really think I became obsessed. I got to know [Sr.] Helen Prejean pretty well during the time of the national coalition [against the death penalty]. She kept talking to me about the difference between an obsession and a calling. But I couldn’t see it.

“When it's personal,” said Norgard, “it's so critical, so urgent, so stressing -- this huge thing coming at you.”

Norgard knew, finally, that something was seriously wrong with her son. She flew to St. Paul, Minn., to the adoption agency. “I went back looking for clues. I was trying to look at everything,” she said. “I'd learned about mitigating circumstances. I learned that a judge can find anything mitigating.”

It turned out that Eastlack's birth mother had maintained contact with the agency. They found her for Norgard, and through her social worker she said that as a teenager she was into heavy drinking and drank into her first trimester.

“It was the first clue we ever had,” said Norgard. “There are tests for fetal alcohol syndrome. Experts can look at photographs and tell -- premature wrinkles, droopy eyelids, bulbous upper lip, thin bottom lip.”

A University of Arizona geneticist saw Eastlack's photographs and confirmed the fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosis. The diagnosis is controversial, but increasingly experts are finding that even small amounts of alcohol can damage the developing brain, and some jurists are advocating that screening for the syndrome should be part of normal court-ordered psychological examinations. More information on fetal alcohol syndrome can be obtained by contacting the University of Wisconsin-based National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (1-800-66-NOFAS Web site: www.NOFAS.org).

Arizona has an automatic appeal for a death penalty conviction. Before the State Supreme Court, Prejean testified on videotape, and others in person, asking Judge Pro Tempore John Limberg to do the right and moral thing.

“Because the judge [at the appeal] was pro tem,” said Norgard, “he didn't have career prospects, so he didn't have the pressure to give the death penalty. That was very lucky.”

Norgard insisted on testifying. “I said everything I could possibly think of.” She raised enough red flags that the court ruled Eastlack needed a mental health evaluation. The fetal alcohol syndrome was confirmed (he is not mentally retarded), and Eastlack's sentence was commuted.

For Norgard, 1997 became a year of life. Her daughter had a baby, and John was sentenced to life. “There is a decidedly different quality between having somebody in prison and somebody on death row. And I struggle with that,” she said. “Because I cannot imagine living my life out in prison. So awful. So brutal.”

In supermax prison, Eastlack, she said, worked hard to find, in some very small ways, a way to have a life, “and we worked hard at trying to help create some loving community. My family and brothers walked with us, as did our faith community and friends at Southside Presbyterian.” (She also worships periodically with a Catholic community.)

“John became a model prisoner, because when he's got that kind of structure he does very well,” said Norgard. “We were very happy about his classification change [from death row] because he could see the sun again, be outside. ‘Better food,’ he said. He could interact with people even though he was still in lockdown. They put him in a place called CB3. I've no idea why. I understand there are a lot of gang-related individuals in it,” said Norgard.

Stabbed in prison attack

On April 28, Eastlack was in the law library, handcuffed and shackled. Two other men were present. He turned his back for a second and felt something. He turned around, and the two men he'd been talking to were stabbing him. He was stabbed 18 times in the back. His lungs were punctured, his spleen and bowels slashed.

The Norgards learned of the stabbing two-and-a-half hours later. Eastlack was flown by helicopter to a trauma unit at St. Mary's Hospital. They were allowed to visit him briefly but not to touch him. Norgard had trouble getting medical information. A bulletin had to be relayed, they said, through the Department of Corrections.

Norgard fought for daily visits, contact visits.

“I was able to sit and hold his hand. It was the first time in years I was able to touch John,” she said.

Four days after being stabbed, still recovering from abdominal surgery, with still-healing incisions and stab wounds, he was handcuffed and driven the 75 miles back to prison in a police car and, she said, placed in a cell with no mattress or pillow. “No pain medication, not even the antibiotics he needed,” said Norgard.

“I don't know what to say about the system,” she commented, exasperated. “It's a system that doesn't have any oversight.”

After two days of constant phone calls Norgard was able to visit Eastlack in the supermax. They were told that after that they could have no visits because of security.

“That began another whole harangue, trying to deal with these people,” she said. Finally a woman in Phoenix who leads a prison reform group told Norgard that under case law there is a right to visit. That it's not a privilege, as the prison insisted. Norgard got another weekend visit.

Eastlack is now being held in involuntary protective custody in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the Florence prison.

“You know what's been really amazing to me?” said Norgard. “My lack of angry feelings toward the two 27-year-olds who stabbed him. The authorities want John to testify. But that's not what you do in prison. A guard saw this. It's not going to resolve anything. One of them is already in for 80 years.”

Norgard sat solemn, as she had throughout the interview, alert to the phone about to ring, popping up quickly when it did.

“If I had my druthers I'd want to sit down in a room with them [the two attackers]. Sit down with John there. With their families there. Figure where we could go from here.

It’s not about getting more guns, more concrete, more steel, more guards,” said Norgard. “It's about doing something in the prisons that can morally affect people. Is prison just to repress people?”

Her question drifted off. Later she said, “If prison doesn't offer programs as a window of hope, the more discouraged and then more violent they become while in, and the angrier they are when they get out.”

She continued, “I learned something at that hospital that I knew viscerally. Women in prison -- one in 16 is a woman -- are chained and shackled when they deliver their babies. There's something really wrong with us.” But she isn't, at this time anyway, involved in a prison reform movement.

“I'm too burned out to work with groups,” she said. The phone rang. It was the call about visits she was waiting for. She went to the telephone. The interview was over.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999