Our eyes met for only a second or two. Throughout the court hearing, I had stared at 15-year-old Jonathan Ray. I wanted to get a sense of what he was thinking. Like most news reporters, I have a fascination with the criminal mind. But, with this African-American teenager, it was more like: What if it had been one of my sons who was doomed to decades in prison for the heinous crime of murdering his mother and setting fire to their home to cover up the dastardly act?
Could it somehow have been avoided? Could someone have sensed his silent pain and the depressive state that led up to the moment when he decided to take the life of the one person whose only apparent fault was her unconditional love for him?
Don't get me wrong. Whether in the spur of the moment or intentionally planned, Ray consciously made the decision to become a killer. We, as a society, and through us, our judicial system, shouldn't mollycoddle such people. Ray is the latest example of the legal conundrum: What is the right thing to do when "tweeners" — adolescents — who commit brutal crimes come before the bar of justice?
The day before I covered Ray's trial, I'd done a story on an event called the International Fatherhood Conference. It was a three-day workshop aimed at bringing together fathers, predominately African American, to exchange views and techniques on assuming leadership roles in their own households. Presented by a "think tank" that had done years of study on the subject, there were plenty of statistics on how the absence of a father figure in the home has a detrimental effect on children: They don't do well in school. They often run away. The male children tend to go toward fathering out-of-wedlock babies. The girls gravitate toward being "baby factories."
I kept thinking, tell me something I don't already know. The thing I found curious about the scheduling of the seminars and workshops was that nearly all of them took place during the day. If you're a hard-working father, when would you have time to come to such an event? Besides, those who desperately need this kind of manly therapy in Memphis aren't going to get anywhere near the East Memphis hotel where it was held. It reminded me of what my grandfather once lamented: "Do-gooders often drink the mother's milk of fools."
These two seemingly disparate stories have been gnawing at me as we approach another Father's Day. With all due respect to the fine folks who put on that conference, as a father, I didn't need somebody to tell me how I needed to assume a leadership role with my children. That is a given. If you're man enough to have them, then you should be man enough to take care of them. That applies as well to the children you might inherit if you marry into an existing family. My biological father died of tuberculosis when I was 2 years old. My mother married my stepdad when my brother Larry and I were 4 and 5, respectively. He never made us feel anything less than his children, even though three other sons would follow. My mother was a strong woman. But there was never any doubt who the "leader" of our family was, like it or not.
That's what made the testimony given at Ray's court hearing so soul-wrenching for me. James Wallace, Ray's stepfather, who married the victim, Gwendolyn Wallace, when Ray was 9, said under cross-examination by Ray's defense team that he clearly remembered someone had read his then 14-year-old son his Miranda rights before he was grilled for hours without a bathroom break by criminal investigators. However, four hours of videotape dispelled Wallace's testimony. No one read the teen his rights.
One of the investigators admitted to lying to the boy about evidence authorities didn't even have in order to wrangle a confession out of him. Wallace admitted he was in a room adjacent to where the interrogation was taking place and watched it all without any interference. Where was Ray's biological father during all this? He was nowhere to be seen; he lives in Detroit.
All of this made those brief seconds of eye contact with Jonathan Ray all the more sad. Yes, he's been sentenced to 25 years in prison. Yes, he is a convicted killer. But he is somebody's son, too.