FIRST BORN: The Death of Arnold Zeleznik, Age Nine: Murder, Madness and What Came After by John Katzenbach
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FIRST BORN: The Death of Arnold Zeleznik, Age Nine: Murder, Madness and What Came After

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A poignant, understated account of a family's eight-year fight for ""accountability"" in the death of their son at the hands of a madman. The triggering event took only seconds. While stopping at a Miami motel during a vacation trip, Carter Zeleznik left nine-year-old Arnold waiting in the motel corridor for about a minute, while he went back to leave the room key with his wife, Betty. From another room there emerged, with a knife, Vernal Walford, a Jamaican-born illegal alien and ex-mental patient; he later said the voice of God told him to ""Step outside and take what you find there!"" For Miami's public defenders, Walford was the ultimate challenge: ""who could be more outcast from society than a black, mad, foreign child murderer?"" Their brilliant legal work ran rings around the prosecutors, kept Walford from coming to trial (he lacked competence--one psychiatrist called him ""the craziest man I ever saw""), even after massive doses of antipsychotic drugs brought him a lot closer to this planet (the legal question: is ""competence"" induced by drugs true competence?), and ultimately resulted in a bargained not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity disposition. The judicial system's passivity infuriated Carter and Betty Zeleznik--""It's as though they had contempt for a child's life""--and they sued the state of Massachusetts where, it turned out, Walford had been released (after a scant two days) from a state mental hospital only three weeks before the homicide. The state invoked the shield of ""sovereign immunity,"" and although the Zelezniks took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, they ultimately lost. Fifteen minutes' exposure of the case on television's 60 Minutes, however, turned the tide. Two Massachusetts state senators headed up an inquiry that resulted in a small monetary settlement but, much more important to the Zelezniks, an admission that the state was to blame: Walford, said the final report, ""should not have been released."" Walford will stay in a Florida state institution until a court decides he is no danger to himself or society. Some day, Katzenbach suggests, when the institution is overcrowded, some judge may let him go and deport him to Jamaica. And there's nothing the Zelezniks can do about it. Throughout, Katzenbach avoids easy melodrama and adroitly interweaves the three threads of the story: the enigma of Walford himself, the procedural skirmishing in the criminal and civil cases, and the gradual transition of the Zelezniks (and their surviving son) from devastated victims to obsessed seekers of justice. Fine, sensitive reporting by the Miami-newspaperman author of last year's fictional In the Heat of the Summer.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1983
Publisher: Atheneum