Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stringbean's Killer Wins His Parole

News reached us this week that the convicted killer of David "Stringbean" Akeman has been granted parole.

I was a boy when Stringbean was murdered in November 1973. My family was living in Nashville while my father was on sabbatical. The weekend that Stringbean was killed, my father was at some kind of educators' conference, and my mother took my brother and me to Chattanooga, where we spent the weekend in the Chattanooga Choo–Choo hotel, which was a hotel made out of an actual train.

It wasn't until we got back to Nashville late that Sunday that we learned that Stringbean and his wife had been murdered by burglars at their cabin in the country late Saturday night.

Well, at the time, no one knew that it had been burglars — although the police must have suspected as much. The cabin had been ransacked.

I told the story of the murder of Stringbean on the 40th anniversary of that event last year. I don't really have much to add to that, just some thoughts on the occasion of his killer's parole.

We left Nashville before the Brown cousins were tried for the murders of Stringbean and Estelle so I have no memory of that. But I vividly remember seeing the picture below on the front page of The Tennessean, Nashville's newspaper, the Monday after the killings. See those Xes? They indicate where the bodies were found. The one at the doorway is where Stringbean was killed. The one near the cars shows where Estelle's body was found.

I suppose, if I had been one of Stringbean's friends and colleagues, I would be bitter about the parole, too, as The Tennessean is reporting. Most of Stringbean's contemporaries and co–stars on the TV show Hee Haw are gone now, but some are still around, and they opposed the parole. It was granted, anyway.

The Brown cousins were each given two 99–year sentences for taking the two lives, which adds up to a 198–year sentence apiece. The cousin who did not pull the trigger died in prison a decade ago; the cousin who did pull the trigger is being paroled after serving 40 years. That is not an insignificant length of time, but whoever it was who handed down the sentences, whether it was the judge or the jury or both working together, the fact is that it was decided at the time of the trial by a person or persons who heard all the testimony and saw all the evidence that neither of the defendants should ever walk the streets a free man again.

Judges and juries are asked to do some of the dirtiest work imaginable in a democratic republic. They are asked to sit in judgment of someone else, and they often have to see and hear some gruesome things in order to do what they are asked to do. (I speak from experience here. For about a year and a half, I worked as a police/courthouse beat reporter for a newspaper in Arkansas.)

When they do that thankless job, their decision should be respected. Forty years may seem sufficient punishment to you, but whoever handed down the sentences clearly believed neither man should be free.

Why do I say that conclusion was clear from the sentence? Well, you have to go back to biblical times (or a vampire novel) to find the last person who — supposedly — lived to be more than 200 years old. It just doesn't happen in modern times.

I'm not one of those eye–for–an–eye guys. Five years ago, I argued that Susan Atkins, a member of the infamous Manson Family who killed actress Sharon Tate and her house guests in 1969, should be granted parole on compassionate grounds. (Atkins did not receive that parole, by the way, and died of brain cancer in September 2009.)

If Stringbean's killer had been stricken with a deadly disease, I might have supported his parole — for the same reason. (I say "might have" because it is a hypothetical — speculative in nature — and I prefer not to speculate about what my reaction would be to a hypothetical circumstance.)

But Atkins' was a compelling special circumstance. I haven't advocated the parole of Charles Manson or any of his followers who have been in prison for more than four decades. If a compelling special circumstance does not exist — and there isn't one in the Stringbean murder case, as far as I know — then I believe a sentence that has been handed down by a judge or jury or both should be upheld.

Today, I have found myself remembering those days long ago and how the murders of Stringbean and Estelle marked the end of the innocence of Nashville's country music community. String wasn't a country music performer so much as he was a bluegrass performer. Well, that's my opinion. He played the banjo, and I have always believed the banjo is a bluegrass music instrument, not a country music instrument.

He performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, with country stars and bluegrass stars alike. (I have always regretted the fact that my family never went to the Opry while we lived in Nashville.) In fact, he had been performing at the Opry the night of his murder. The last song he ever sang was a song he practiced backstage with another performer — "Lord, I'm Coming Home."

I read every story about the killings, watched every news report. I knew all the grim details. In my mind's eye, I could almost see the whole thing as it played out. It was pretty intense for a young boy.

It was pretty intense for Nashville's country music community, too. Before Stringbean's murder, performers at the Opry would often have drinks with their fans at nearby bars after the show. That stopped after String's murder. Before the murder, many folks in Nashville — not just the performers although they were notorious for it — left their doors unlocked at night. That stopped, too. In fact, my memory is that door lock and gun sales went up, as did the demand for the home security systems of the day. The performers started hiring bodyguards.

It had truly been a simple, innocent time. And it was over.