Killer Poet (2008)

Producer/Director: Susan Gray

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In his new biography, Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art (Macmillan, 2008), Simon Louvish recounts reaction to The Greatest Show on Earth, the backstage drama about the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus that won the Best Picture Oscar for 1952:

The tale of Buttons, a clown played by James Stewart, who hides behind his great painted red smile the secret of a crime committed in his previous life as a surgeon: the mercy killing of his wife. This part of the story brought DeMille into conflict with the Catholic Legion of Decency, who issued a condemnation of the film for this theme, which they claimed was treated sympathetically. DeMille protested that a crime had been committed and atoned for, as Buttons saves the wounded Brad and other in the train-wreck scene. But the Legion of Decency’s Christianity was too robust to accept atonement.

Buttons’ story is fiction, but what if it weren’t? What if you met and grew to like, admire, even love a man who is kind, creative, and a good friend (even if he does have a bit of drinking problem), and then found out he was wanted for murder?

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This is exactly what happened to a lot of people in Chicago, including several friends of mine, when, in 2005, state police from Illinois and Massachusetts apprehended Norman Porter, Jr. at the Third Unitarian Church on Chicago’s West Side. More than 20 years earlier, Porter, known in Chicago as Jacob “JJ” Jameson, had escaped from a minimum-security prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, where he was serving time for murder. Porter was convicted for the shooting death of John “Jackie” Piggott during a 1960 robbery of a Robert Hall clothing store, and then charged and convicted again of the murder of David Robinson, Sr., a prison guard, during an escape attempt he made with another inmate, Edgar W. Cook, in 1961.

At the time of his successful escape in 1985, Porter had served 23 years of two life sentences. He was a model prisoner who, as an admired leader among the inmates at a maximum-security prison in Walpole, helped keep Massachusetts prisoners from rioting in the wake of the infamous Attica prison riot in 1971. He went from functionally illiterate to earning his high school diploma and writing a new constitution for Norfolk Prison. Then-Gov. Michael Dukakis commuted his sentence for the Robinson murder due to his impressive rehabilitation and the fact that he did not fire the weapon that killed the guard. Porter fully expected to be paroled in 1985, but the changing political climate and Dukakis’ bid for the U.S. presidency prevented this. Despondent, he walked off the prison grounds, made his way to a bus depot, and asked what buses were leaving the soonest. He had a choice between Florida, New Orleans, and Chicago. He had just finished reading Nelson Algren’s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, so Chicago it was.

During his 20 years in Chicago, JJ made a modest living as an apartment rehabber and handyman; it was in the latter role that he came to know my friend Chris and her family and, through Chris, my friends Eleanora and Matt and some of the Facets crowd. He also became a fixture on the robust Chicago poetry scene. He was a regular at some of the poetry venues, among them Weeds and The Green Mill, where the poetry slam was born. Through his friendship with Dave Gecic, publisher of Puddin’head Press, he published a well-regarded book of poetry, Lady Rutherfurd’s Cauliflower. When he became active at the Third Unitarian Church, he rose to the highest lay position in the church and started a day care center that still thrives today. He joined the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington and won the all-white Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago for the future African-American mayor by an amazing figure (for Chicago) of 51.6 percent.

How are we to make sense of these disparate actions, reconcile the Good JJ with the Bad Norman? In this black-and-white world we’ve become accustomed to, there is only one or the other. The possibility that there should ever be an end to Norman’s punishment—tacitly denying there was or is anything good in him—must be shut out among the family and friends of the victims and the justice system that represents them. The shock among his Chicago friends, who just could not imagine that he was responsible for two horrific crimes, has turned into a galvanic crusade on his behalf. Director Gray provides an absorbing 360-degree view of this one extraordinary case to examine the criminal justice system as it was when Norman Porter entered it, what it became when he left it, and what it is now that he has returned to it.

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The film opens with a pomp-and-circumstance, full-dress-uniform ceremony honoring the officers of the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Squad who brought Porter in. Individuals we will later meet as family and friends of the murder victims stand and applaud as the commendation is read and official congratulations meted out in a receiving line. A personal account of Piggott’s murder is given by Claire Wilcox, Jackie’s fiancee. She describes the spray of holes the sawed-off shotgun made on Piggott’s back. David Robinson’s nephew Peter is interviewed at the grave of his uncle. Forty-five years haven’t seemed to ease his pain.

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Porter’s unhappy childhood, early scrapes with the law, and his “career” in prison are all recounted using photos, interviews with police and prison officials, and Paul T. Smith, a lawyer who represented Porter at his 2005 sentence hearing. The police refer to Porter as a cop killer for whom a mandatory death sentence should have been imposed. Piggott’s cousin recounts her special relationship with him and the difficulty she has in finding forgiveness in her heart.

When the scene shifts to Chicago, we meet Gecic and several poets who recount JJ’s many thoughtful acts on their behalf, but also a drunken performance he gave at an annual fundraiser of the Nelson Algren Society, a videotape of which Gray includes in her film. He was volatile, they said, chasing demons. What they didn’t know was how carefully JJ worked to stay “off the books.” He left no paper trail—no credit cards, no utilities, paid cash. He says, “If the speed limit was 50, I’d do 49.”

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However, he didn’t manage to keep his record as spotless as he would have liked. While drunk, he shoplifted a pack of Camels. He also blew through a traffic light and failed to pay for a “service” (I presume a meal). He was fingerprinted, and those prints eventually were seen in Massachusetts. Connections to Gecic and the poetry scene were made through simple Google searches. When the police arrived, he made no attempt to resist. “”I had a good 20-year run,” he said. Gecic and several other friends felt betrayed and disturbed by his past, even as others rallied to his defense.

At a sentencing hearing for his escape, family members of the victims of Porter’s crimes faced off against his Chicago friends in their testimony regarding an appropriate punishment. The judge gave him a fairly reasonable three years on the escape attempt, but both of his life sentences were put back in force. Norman now languishes in a maximum-security prison, spending 23 hours of every day in solitary confinement. After repeated refusals to grant Gray’s team access to Porter for an interview, the prison officials finally relented.

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The sentencing hearing really goes to the heart of the issue Gray has been aiming for all along: subtly asking us to examine our notions of justice through the stranger-than-fiction story of Bad Norman/Good JJ. Rev. Donald Wheat, from JJ’s church, says that he understands the essence of religion to be about redemption. Why is it so hard to believe that a young, troubled man could try to change his life to atone for his grevious sins and put something good into the world? Paul Smith provides testimony that suggests that Porter was not the shooter in the Robert Hall robbery, and that he is the poster child for rehabilitation. The 45-year-old anger of the victim’s relatives and friends, the fact that Porter escaped from prison, and the perceived lack of remorse, however, sealed his fate.

At the screening I attended, Gray, several members of the production crew, most of the Chicago residents who appeared in the film, the four Illinois and Massachusetts officers who apprehended Porter, and a former inmate who served time with Porter came to the podium to add brief comments to the film. There was only enough time for two questions, and I was lucky to ask the first one. I wondered, since the film was so even-handed, how Gray, a Massachusetts journalist, felt about Porter’s fate. She said that her film editor kept her from tipping the scales to her own view—that a life sentence is now a death sentence, and that this is not the way the system used to be applied nor should continue to be applied. She said that the penal system used to work to keep violent young offenders off the streets until they reached an age when they no longer represented a threat to society. Anger, impulsiveness, lack of sense, and fear all played a role in what happened to Jackie Piggott. Norman had shown he could be rehabilitated, but when the political climate changed to make “soft on crime” a death knell to political ambitions, the rehabilitative aspects of incarceration died instead.

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The second question was to the former inmate, asking whether Porter had ever admitted to actually killing Piggot. He said, no, and said Porter had learned more or less to live with what he had done and was a role model for him in coming to terms with his manslaughter of the mother of his children.

From a personal point of view, I think Porter is being punished for making fools of law enforcement, not only because he got away and eluded capture for so long, but because his life example flies in the face of the current thinking that criminals should be locked up to rot. Evidence of that thinking is that the United States has the largest prison population in the developed world. If the 19-year-old Norman Porter were convicted today, he’d never have a chance to spend 20 years doing something useful with his life, but rather would be taking up space in prison on the taxpayers’ dime. I feel for the families of the victims, but haven’t they extracted their pound of flesh? Porter spent more than two decades in prison and did show remorse and take responsibility for his actions at his sentencing hearing. Isn’t it time the families took some responsibility for completing their grieving process and put a little compassion back into their hearts?

Porter has maintained that he did not shoot Piggott, and there’s reason to doubt that he did. This is the lack of “remorse” the court held against him. It may never be known with absolute certainly whether Porter shot Piggot, but here’s one of JJ’s poems that might be a confession, or it just might be a taking of responsibility for his part in the robbery:

THE GUY I KILLED

I remember the guy I killed. I drank with him once down the Lynn Tape and Grille. Wow, it seems like such a long time ago. It’s been ten years now since that rainy Friday night when my crime partner and I ran headlong into Robert Hall’s like madmen of long ago with pork pie hats and bandanas, sawed off shotguns and silver plated pistols. It was the money we were after. Nobody. Nobody was supposed to die. Guns went off. People jumping on people. Just once, for a brief second did it flash through my head that all was madness, couldn’t really be happening. It pains me every time I remember that second. I see the guy I killed. I drank with him once down the Lynn Tape and Grille. We got away that night, but they caught the guy driving the car, a nice brand new four door Buick, I stole over in front of the Lafayette House. He just couldn’t wait to tell all he knew. Soon the police were after us. We wound up getting caught and pleading guilty to murder and robbery, to spare the horrors of the electric chair. I’ve lived every minute of every day of every year, whether I wanted to or not, with that one bad frame staring me right in the face. I don’t want justification or that elusive criminal justice, just want to be forgiven. I remember the guy I killed, I drank with him once down at the Lynn Tap and Grille.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 8:48 am

    Marilyn, I’m beginning to think you should do all the write-ups for TOERIFC. This is another film that had I and the others seen it could merit hundreds of comments in a discussion of the ethics in question. And I really do want to see this film to get a better idea of how I feel about it. Reading your excellent review doesn’t give me the visual and audio clues I would get from watching the whole film and taking in Porter’s personality.
    As it is, I find it hard to come down on one side or the other without seeing it. My instinct is to say he did his time and should be set free. I know that we all make mistakes in our youth but I also know for most of us those mistakes don’t result in the loss of another person’s life. But how does keeping him imprisoned make the loss of a loved one easier to take. He is no longer a vicious killer so … what’s the point? Revenge?
    I can hardly wait to see it to dive deeper into these questions.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 9:04 am

    Jonathan – The trailer is at the official site, and that may give you a flavor for the film. So far, it is not scheduled for wide release and has been playing the festival circuit. You may not be able to see it except on a possible DVD. As with many films like this, distribution is a huge question. Perhaps it will show up on PBS.
    I think the fact that Porter has not shown violence toward anyone in Chicago indicates that he’s no threat to society. The murders are terrible losses, but I think we’ve come to regard human beings as unregenerate, and our system has become nearly 100% punitive. There is a feeling in society that we are entitled to take a life for a life, whether through execution or life in prison. I am staunchly against the death penalty, no matter which of these methods are used. And what justifies keeping Porter in solitary? That’s just the penal system being vindictive.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 10:43 am

    I am confident it will play at the AFI. So far, there hasn’t been a controversial doc or foreign film they haven’t shown at some point, unless it flies really low on the radar but I’m hoping this will generate enough discussion that it doesn’t.
    Solitary confinement is to my limited knowledge generally used as 1. punishment and 2. safety. The punishment is for a prisoner attacking or killing someone in the prison and the safety is for either the prisoner in question or those he might kill. Porter doesn’t fit either. I don’t see him as a threat to the prison community and I don’t think he is in danger from them. So yes, it does seem to be vindictive.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 10:57 am

    I hope it does, Jonathan. Apparently, it was a sensation in Boston (for obvious reasons). I expect it to play again in Chicago at some point (again, for obvious reasons). The showing I attended was absolutely packed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 12:40 pm

    Here’s another bit of information that ought to have worked in Porter’s favor and should work in favor of juvenile offenders who are tried as adults:
    During the last two decades, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has provided insights never before available into brain functioning. Scientists now know that the decision-making portion of a teenager’s brain is not mature and that the impulse-control portion of the brain — the last part of the brain to develop fully — does not physically mature until about age 25.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    27th/01/2009 to 9:46 pm

    A compelling write-up on a compelling film. I liked that, though you describe his crimes briefly in the early paragraphs, you focus more on his ties to the Chicago community, and his efforts at rehabilitation (i.e. his sympathetic traits) only later delving into the details of his crime (as well as his drunkennes which, while human, also makes him slightly less sympathetic). This sounds like the opposite of the documentary’s structure, which apparently delves into his crime first. I think I like your approach more because I don’t think I could sympathize with the guy hearing initially about what he did, nor would the shock of his criminal past and re-capture register as profoundly.
    Anyway, I think you’re a bit too tough on the victims’ families and I have to admit I’m bothered by the tendency to be nuanced in regard to the criminal but impatient with the victims’ anger (a tendency which you fight, to be fair, but one which is present in many documentaries and narrative films I’ve seen addressing imprisonment and the death penalty).
    BUT you do make many good points about the value of a rehabilitative system vs. a punitive one, which are worth considering and weighing. There is a fundamental disparity here – Porter ended a life, perhaps two, lives that will never be redeemed, people who will never be returned to their families…never. In return, he has spent decades in prison, decades out of prison (which he seemed to enjoy), and is now back behind bars. Whatever we think of this, it can be admitted that it in no way makes up for what he has done – the pound of flesh has never been and will never be extracted – even if Porter was executed, he still had those extra years no one could take away.
    I do not think “eye for an eye” is necessarily the best course; but nor do I think it’s an unjust philosophy – only, perhaps, an unworkable and perhaps unworthy one.
    Anyway, a lot to think about. Thanks.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    28th/01/2009 to 8:49 am

    Scientists now know that the decision-making portion of a teenager’s brain is not mature and that the impulse-control portion of the brain — the last part of the brain to develop fully — does not physically mature until about age 25.
    You’d think any judge or jury member who is a parent would already know that. My wife and I figured that out a few years ago. Oh, 25, you can’t get here soon enough!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/01/2009 to 9:15 am

    Thanks, MovieMan. The eye for an eye is where we differ. I do not believe in it, nor do I believe that anger should be allowed to go on forever. This is exactly how regional conflicts, such as those in the Balkans, flare up again and again. I knew a Serbian woman during the Bosnian War who justified it by saying, “Do you know what they did to us in the last war?” This endless cycle of killing-recrimination-killing, etc. has to stop. I equate killing in war with the type of murder for which Porter was serving time, only worse. It has state sanction and turns many decent people into troubled souls.
    To me, Porter has paid for a crime he committed in youth, the most volatile time of our lives. He has shown he has been rehabilitated. A guard from the minimum-security prison from which he escaped said Porter is nothing but a con artist – was then, is now. It’s true he kept his history a secret, but does that invalidate what he did with those years?
    Toward the end of the film, Jackie’s cousin says she is trying to forgive him because she wants God to forgive her sins, that God’s judgment is what’s important. One of the Mass. cops who attended the screening invoked God’s law quite a bit and referenced the grief of the victims’ families. I think this is important. For those who believe in God, they should also believe “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Human beings ruled by emotions they can’t or don’t want to govern kill or seek vengeance. I would argue that the war in Iraq was acceptable to the American public because they sought vengeance for 9/11. Many innocent people died, and innocent people have been put to death by the criminal justice system – that’s why we have a moratorium on the death penalty here in Illinois.
    Mandatory sentences and the balance that has tipped our justice system toward 100% punishment do not allow for judgment, mercy, or even proper punishment. Some murderers have walked away after only a few years, with the court’s blessing. This case, as I said, really puts the justice system on trial. Whatever you think of Porter or the families, it’s clear that something’s wrong when politics and changing mindsets can both grant a commutation and later reimpose a life sentence. What about Porter’s rights? He’s still a human being with all the good and bad in all of us.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/01/2009 to 10:24 am

    Good luck, Jonathan, with that stranger in your midst.

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