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  • "There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable." Goethe

    In a recent ethics class I was asked to evaluate Capital Punishment and ask myself if I was for it or against the death penalty. In Oregon, Capital Punishment is legal. What I determined is that for me, Capital Punishment is not a black and white issue and must be evaluated in a case by case basic before determining a sentence that could impose lethal injection.

    Viennese psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, in 1945 published a report, which indicates that the line between murderers and the rest of the population is narrower than most people like to think. He once said, “nearly everybody has strong motives for murder. And courts habitually and unconsciously mistake the thought for the deed; “ . . . many people have in fact been hanged for a thought."

    Reik, a prominent student of Freud, believed that murders have an urge towards self-punishment. “A murderer,” he observes, “almost invariably leaves at least one revealing clue. This is no accident: every murderer, however brutal, seems to be driven by an unconscious compulsion to betray himself, to punish himself for his crime. The more cautious he is, the more certain he is to make a misstep; some criminologists say that the hardest murder to solve is a completely impulsive one.

    I’ve come to know more about the possible psyche of a killer and what impulses are behind killing another human being. On October 13, 2009, a friend of mine was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated murder near Bend, Oregon. On April 13, 2010 he entered an Alford plea on the murder charges, and was convicted of both murders, and sentenced to two life terms.

    Jason Centrone was in my poetry group from 2004 – 2006 and came to my home many times. Just like the others in my poetry group, he was well-read, educated, sensitive, thoughtful and enjoyed writing and reading poetry. Not exactly someone I would have characterized as having killer instincts.

    Jason was injured in a bicycle/truck accident two years prior to his arrest. While on his way to a job site, a dump truck driver decided to try to run Jason off the road and clipped his arm with the truck's side view mirror. With numerous medical bills and out of work, Jason lost his home, his girlfriend, his car and eventually became homeless. A carpenter by trade, Jason was handy with building things. While living in a homeless camp near Bend he began to build a rock wall and privacy screen for people to use to go to the bathroom in the woods. One drunken evening, two of the men from the homeless camp built a fire with some of the branches Jason was saving for the privacy screen. This action so angered Jason that a verbal argument ensued. There were many witnesses to the drunken argument, but no violence was observed.

    The next day, Jason hiked into Bend to a Walmart store and refused to leave the store until the police were called. Once the police arrived, Jason told them he had stabbed two men back at the homeless camp and wanted to turn himself in. The police went to where Jason had described the homeless camp, and found a tent with two bodies inside.

    Whether Jason was drunk or in a fit of mental illness, we may never know. Jason does have a problem with alcohol, but does not remember stabbing or killing either man. He initially admitted the murders but the details could not be established. Possibly Jason blocked out the memories from his mind. In either case, there was enough evidence against him that he entered an ‘Alford Plea - which is essentially a ‘no contest’ plea.

    Prior to the trial, Jason wrote me several letters and on one occasion some of the poetry group members went to visit him in the Deschutes County Jail in Bend. He was unable to write candidly as his mail was being monitored, but he did send a message to me the day he entered his plea. He wrote, “I have largely been unable to acquit myself in any productive sense in the world, in fact, have been unable to live without creating a palpable wake of emotional disorder while chasing whims and remaining mostly confused, embracing alcohol to no avail and shirking the responsibility of maintaining meaningful relationships. This deeply unhealthy and largely hedonistic trend appears to have culminated in the recent tragedy for which I have accepted all accountability. Though I have no true memory of what happened, the facts accumulated in my disfavor in this case are incontrovertible.”

    The effect of emotions on human action, its influence on individual choice is at the knotty center of its relation to our freedom, to our autonomy and our lives. Jason may have used a knife to kill his victims. Perhaps impulse or the angry argument the night before had set him off. Jason knew the victims, and both acted in the heat of the moment.

    Jason walked miles to the Walmart, refused to leave, until the police arrived, and turned himself in. He knew he was in no condition to stay out in the world to possibly continue to do unspeakable things.

    Some might say that Jason avoided the death sentence by turning himself in, and plea bargaining his sentence down from the most severe charge of aggravated murder to murder. But, in either case, Jason will spend the rest of his (most likely short life) behind prison walls. In his letter written for me on the day of sentencing, he wrote, “It seems I am no longer to be a ‘jailbird instead of the Jaybird you knew”.

    Yes, turning oneself in after committing a murder is true to Reik’s theory that all murderers want to be found out. There is a hidden psychology of the unconscious in self-betrayal. There is a struggle between two opposing forces: to cover up and to betray. And the unconscious usually must leave a clue. In Jason’s case, he owned up to the acts he’d committed and suffered the consequences. Jason has taken a different stance, one that can hopefully bring healing to the victim’s families, and his own family and friends.

    Simply knowing that a friend of mine and fellow poet could commit murder makes that line between murderers and the rest of the population narrower than I ever thought possible.

    Works Cited:

    1. The Unknown Murderer. [New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1945 Theodore Reik






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