How a Murder-Suicide in St. Clair County Helped Decide My Practice Area
After my 1L year at Cumberland, I clerked for six weeks with the St. Clair County District Attorney. St. Clair County lies east of Birmingham and is home to the Coosa River. I expected my time there to be fairly quiet, because what could really be going on in a quaint, rural county? Answer: All the things!
Aside from the story I’m going to share today, here are some other cases I worked on while I was there: a guy who sexually tortured then murdered a girl he met at a bar, then dumped her body in the woods; another guy who murdered an old woman, partially undressed her and dumped her body in the woods; and an interview with a man in his fifties who was suspected of having a hand in more than a dozen gang-related murders over his lifetime (and he was a surprisingly nice guy). My quiet summer in St. Clair County was anything but. And true to form, the county saved the best for last.
“You’re going to want to come with me on this one.”
In the final week of my clerkship, I showed up to the office right as the courthouse opened at 8:00am. A call came in, and one of the Assistant DAs half-shouted, “You’re going to want to come with me on this one,” as she rushed past me. As we drove out to the river, she told me what had happened, and we followed the plume of smoke rising through the treetops.
About 6:30 that morning, a man called his buddy who was a State Trooper, saying only, “I can’t take her any more. I’ve had enough.” The line went dead. The Trooper’s callbacks went unanswered, so he immediately called 9-1-1. Shortly after that, a volunteer fireman happened to be driving past a residence when he saw smoke rising from the home. He too called 9-1-1, but the fireman quickly discovered there was no one that needed saving.
Between the phone call and the appearance of the fireman, Mr. Doe had gone into the bedroom and shot his wife, who was still in bed. He doused the place in fuel then set it ablaze. Mr. Doe next walked over to the horse barn and penned a note with instructions about what should be done with his dog, her puppies, and the horses. After completing this task, he took his office chair into the stall where he bathed the horses, and positioned the chair over the drain. Taking the same .38 that he’d shot his wife with minutes earlier, Mr. Doe sat down and shot himself in the chest. Realizing either that his intended death was taking too long or that he had missed any vital organs, Mr. Doe shot himself in the head.
By the time we arrived on the scene, the fireman had put out the house fire. The place was a ruin. We looked through the opening that was once a window to see the charred, still smoking body of Mrs. Doe. Afterward, we proceeded over to the barn. Mr. Doe still lay where he had fallen out of his office chair. Flies had already begun to congregate.
The whole sordid affair was a surreal experience. But it wasn’t the cruel displays of human frailty and fallibility that convinced me I didn’t want to do criminal work. It was the petty, unending stupidity of people spending a lifetime in the system, doing the same things at age sixty that they’d been doing the past four decades. That and the weight of taking years of people’s lives away from them, even if deserved. Now I just peddle in other people’s money and sleep much more easily at night.
Other stories I’ve told on the blog:
Photo by Ada Be.