Monday, December 19, 2005

Vanity Fair Goes Over the Top

While I'll never be able to afford 95% of what is advertised in what can only be called the "National Enquirer for the Upper Class," I always enjoy reading the remarkable writings of Christoper Hitchens, Dominick Dunne, and Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair.

But in the January 2006 issue of VF (whose cover features Naomi Watts as a Vargas Girl) there is a "Postscript" on page 44 that is an ode to former Gozno journalist Hunter Thompson, who took his own life in February of 2005. In an article at times rambling and incoherent entitled "The Prisoner of Denver," published in 2004 in VF, Thompson took on the cause of Lisl Auman, Lisl Auman
another pretty white person convicted of a serious crime. Auman was doing life for being an accomplice to the 1997 murder of Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt.

Thompson, who was the poet laureate (I'm not making that up) of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, worked himself into his usual frenzy:
The NACDL brings a heavyweight presence to this case that will quickly level the playing field. Nobody needs a public fight with a team of Elite warriors from the NACDL. It will be like having to fight Joe Frazier every day for six months. There will be injuries, and there will be more than one trip to the Emergency Room this time. No more easy wins for the black hats. The worm is about to turn. That is also a good early bet. Take my word for it.
Although VF makes much of the fact that such legal luminaries as Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp joined Thompson in his quest to free Auman, the actual facts are -- as always -- a little more nuanced than the Hollywood version. In as short a form as possible, here they are:

In 1997, Auman was 21-years old and recruited skinhead and major criminal Mark Jaehnig to burglarize the home of an ex-boyfriend. The burglary went bad and Auman and Jaehnig fled in a car chase complete with a gun battle with police that topped 100 mph. At some point the car stopped. Auman was arrested, refused to help police and shortly thereafter Jaehnig shot Officer VanderJagt before killing himself.

Much is made of the fact that Auman was in police custody when the actual murder took place. Still unanswered is what exactly Auman was doing while Jaehnig organized his arsenal of weapons and fired on police.

A lot of ink and bandwith and has been used to blast what critics have called the medieval law of "felony murder," where a person knowingly involved in a serious felony that results in the death of another is guilty of murder. Far from being some weird anachronism, the felony murder statute is part of most states' criminal codes -- and for good reason. The getaway driver who speeds the bank robber from the scene where a bank guard is shot dead is guilty of the crime, if not exactly to the same degree.

It may well have been that the life without parole sentence Auman received was too harsh. But when the Colorado Supreme Court overturned her conviction and sent it back for retrial it was not because of any defect in the felony murder law. Like so many other reversals heralded by defense lawyers and their supporters, it was on a jury instruction issue.

The name that never appears in VF's postscript is that of Bruce VanderJagt, the 47-year-old father who was also a psychologist. Instead would have its readers believe that Auman’s "unjust conviction" has now been overturned and that she will soon be "completely free from incarceration."

Like so many of those heralded by the glitterati as "exonerated", what Auman actually did was take an offer to plead guilty to Accessory to Murder and Burglary which resulted in her prison sentence being slashed. She was released to a halfway house in October of 2005. Officer VanderJagt's widow supported the deal since Auman finally has accepted some responsibility for the officer's death.

While Auman will walk free soon, a heroine to the NACDL, she will never be able to leave behind both her legal and moral responsibility for the death of a good man, Bruce VanderJagt.Bruce VanderJagt

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece, Josh. When will Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp go to bat for Mark David Chapman? He only killed one man and has been in prison since last century. Enough's enough. He's an old man now. Let him out. Give peace a chance.

    Oh, wait. Chapman killed a celebrity. Let him rot in prison.