Letter to Dominick Dunne
August 26, 2003
Unwillingly, we both belong to that same anguished club with unspeakable dues. My wife and I are also parents of a murdered child. For that reason alone, I hope you will "hear" me out on this long painful letter. (Please let me know if in fact it wends its way via V.F. to you.)
Ours was every parent's worst nightmare: the phone call in the middle of the night, a Saturday night. November, 1998. A voice saying, "I'm sorry...your son…bludgeoned by an assailant…skull cracked open…not expected to live…come quickly."
Anton was our beamish boy, murdered in his prime at 28. Anton was a brilliant, gentle, funny boy. He was a National Merit Finalist, a junior Olympic medalist, a Harvard graduate who spoke multiple languages including Arabic and Japanese. He traveled around the world, to Africa and the Middle East, to Japan and throughout mainland China and across land-mined Cambodia and Viet Nam. Somewhere along the way, he took up scuba diving, became a master diver and instructor, taught diving to paraplegic kids in a Broad Reach program in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. He'd also worked as a bartender and as a teacher of the under-privileged in Boston's grittiest inner city and in Japan as well. .. Did I mention that, on a bet, he'd once placed third in the Mr. Wakayama body building contest! Now, back in the States, he was writing and publishing material from his fabulous life and unusual adventures. He was also working on a book about the sex industry in San Francisco, where he had a part-time job as a strip club cashier! Enough already. After his murder his friends from around the world set up a website to remember him and to reach one another across the globe. If you go to www.antonsegal.com, you'll discover more about how truly exceptional our kid was. But then, aren't they all?
The convicted murderer, one Daniel Alas, admitted killing our son, Anton Segal, in a Saturday night massacre almost 5 years ago. But Alas claimed he was drunk. Of course he was looking for a manslaughter conviction. However, to the contrary, the evidence identified him as being angry at being turned away from a strip club, returning to the scene later, taking a car club from his van, leaving the van with engine running and lights on, crossing the street, and, from behind, clubbing our son to death with a blow to the head that testimony variously described as a cracking sound like a gunshot and as shattering the skull like a cracked egg. Anton never had a chance. He went into a coma from which he never recovered, despite Herculean efforts from surgeons at San Francisco General.
Police reports (not admitted in evidence) show that on that same night of rampage, a sober Alas also assaulted (with a different deadly weapon) a couple in their car. The police did a good job, quickly found Alas' vehicle, inside it found the blood-covered car club, obtained a confession, and in the subsequent trial, Alas was found guilty of murder (2nd degree, malice aforethought). Because of his very long and violent criminal history, including prior felonies in California, he was given a maximum sentence of 36 years to life by the trial judge. As you phrased it in your August piece, there was a trial. There was a jury. There was a verdict. But… that…wasn't…good…enough for the State of California.
Now, almost 5 years after the murder, far from that distant sound and fury, the Appellate Court in San Francisco (where else?) found an opening through which Alas has managed to slither to a new trial, now scheduled for this coming September 15. The original jury, after several days of deliberation, all found Alas guilty, except for 1 juror, who said, "One man's life has been ruined. How can we ruin another man's life?" The judge, the 11 other jurors, and everyone in the courtroom who heard Judge Kevin Ryan's cautious and judicious examination of all 12 jurors, recognized that the single juror who had not wanted to "ruin another man's life" was unable to follow both California law and the Judge's requisite instructions. As you know, these require that in determining the factual issue of guilt, jurors not take into consideration either prejudice or punishment or pity (for either the victim or for the accused). But in fact this single juror was so prejudiced that immediately after the Judge's clear admonition not to discuss the case with anyone until a final verdict had been rendered, he immediately discussed sacrosanct jury room discussions with the defense team! This is a matter of public record.
The trial Judge of course was required by law to dismiss the juror, admit an alternate juror, and after further deliberation among the newly composed jury, they unanimously agreed on the verdict: guilty of murder.
The murderer appealed and found, in the Court of Appeals (in San Francisco, where else?) a sympathetic hearing. The 3 members of the Appellate Court, one of whom did not bother to attend the oral arguments, declared a mistrial and sent Alas back for another trial.
So: here comes a convicted murderer, a multiple felon with a long criminal record, remanded back from San Quentin to county jail for another trial! If he manages to dodge a murder conviction this time, he will soon be back on the streets of San Francisco once again to wreak more havoc on his own community…just as he has already done 18 times in the past, over a 24 year crime spree. On the other hand, if he does get convicted of murder once again, he will appeal again…on any remote grounds in the hope that, one more time, he will get another sympathetic hearing from the same tender Court of Appeals. Heads he wins, tails we (all) lose.
And my anguished question is - how can anyone accept such a system? How can we accept this kind of coddling of criminals? How can we bear to see the world turned so topsy-turvy? With the victims punished and the criminals comforted?
I love my country. I support the protections of our rights. I believe in the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But I think that the politics and policies and prejudices and personalities, of San Francisco in particular, have reached a point utterly beyond reason or comprehension. The madmen are in charge of the asylum.
I hope you will be interested enough, outraged enough, to follow the retrial, to let your impressive voice be heard, to let the people and the politicians and the judiciary know we're all mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more. This is still America, the home of the brave. After reading your column in Vanity Fair all these years, I think you, sir, are one of the bravest. Mr. Dunne, please let your voice be heard, your heart be known.
James R. Segal