A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice, And My Mother

SBEP

Intro from Jay Allison: This is a story about a terrible crime and everything that followed. It's an intensely personal documentary, but it extends into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.

Some stories take a long time. This one is an hour long, and took two and a half years to produce, after twenty years of living with it.

Speaking personally, I'm privileged to have worked with Samantha on her brave telling of her story, her mother's story, and, by proxy, the story of thousands of prisoners serving life sentences.

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Listen to “A Life Sentence”

Revisiting Difficult Things

The story of the violent crime my mother survived in the fall of 1994 has never been something I share easily. It’s more something I offer after I’ve really gotten to know someone and feel that there’s something important they need to know about me, about my family.

I’m acutely aware of the impact this crime has had on my mother’s life, on our family’s life, and I’ve always had a sense of its larger consequences. I thought if I could tell the story of both the intimate and the public impact, it might be worthwhile.

There were a lot of people who warned me this would be hard. And it was. Hardest of all was hearing again the details of what happened to my mother that night. And then hearing them repeatedly as I transcribed our interviews, assembled the script, cut tape, and listened to mixes. I spent many days horizontal on my couch, literally knocked over and out again (nearly 20 years later) by what happened to her.

Revisiting difficult topics isn’t for everyone. When I interviewed my brother for this piece he said he doesn’t like to talk about it. I’ve come to respect that point of view. Over the past two plus years, I’ve had stomach aches and nightmares, I’ve locked my doors more than before, and one day was even sure I saw Reginald McFadden (the man who attacked my mother) walking down the street in the small town where I live. Still, I know myself well enough to know what I can tolerate and that ultimately, for me, it’s always better to stare hard stuff straight in the eye than to turn away from it.

Here are a few things I learned from producing this documentary.

My brother, my mother and me at a press conference in 1995 just after Reginald McFadden was sentenced for his crimes against my mother.
My brother, my mother and me at a press conference in 1995 just after Reginald McFadden was sentenced for his crimes against my mother.

Willingness To Talk

My mother started talking about what happened to her the night she landed in the emergency room and hasn’t stopped since. She says that talking about it has saved her life. Going into this, I knew she would be willing to talk with me about what happened to her. But I had no idea about how others — family members and strangers — would feel about me, out of the blue two decades later, asking them to talk on tape about their connection to events before and after the attack.

To my surprise, most people I reached out to said yes. Yes. Immediately yes. There was a sense that they had been waiting to talk to someone else who also carried this event around with them. And that’s often the way the interviews would go. After introductory awkwardness and pleasantries, we would jump right into what for some of the interviewees was one of the most difficult times in their lives. And our conversations would go deep.

I always left the interviews exhausted. I’m sure the people I interviewed did too. I think Mark Singel (who I talked with for three hours) summed it up best.

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Listen to “Mark Singel Out Take”

Producer Me And Me Me

I have never done a personal piece before. While working on it, I became keenly aware of Producer Me (head) and Me Me (heart and belly). Producer Me would think about what was good for the piece, would handle details, would think about the story. Me Me was on a personal journey, was feeling lots of feelings. Me Me was seeking answers and resolution.

The beauty of this, it turns out, is that despite the fact that I was on my own in the field conducting these interviews, I never felt alone — these two parts of me worked together and helped each other through the rough patches. For example, it was Me Me that convinced me to go to McFadden’s sister’s house in Philadelphia and it was Me Me who got me out of the car to approach her. Meeting Charlotte was something I had thought about for 20 years; I knew if I left the city and didn’t at least try to find her, I would regret it. It was Producer Me, though, who thought to turn on my iPhone and record the whole thing.

On the other hand, Producer Me knew going to meet McFadden himself — or even trying to — would probably make great tape. But once I learned about his current mental state, it was Me Me who put a stop to the whole idea. Me Me knew that no matter how good the tape might be, it wouldn’t be a good for my own mental health for me to meet him.

I think the best interviews were those where both parts of myself showed up and were present in the conversation.

Forgiveness

Going into this, I really did think I might end up forgiving McFadden. I asked nearly everyone I interviewed about forgiveness. And even though that didn’t end up happening, the conversations about forgiveness were some of the most poignant ones I experienced. I was sorry I couldn’t include more of them in the piece itself. I’m glad I can share some here.

The first clip is from Jo DeMarco. She is the mother of Dana DeMarco, the 39-year-old woman McFadden murdered a couple of weeks after attacking my mother. McFadden was never tried for this crime. And Jo has been left for all these years not knowing exactly what happened to her daughter. She told me that after Dana’s murder she turned to religion to cope with her loss. When asked about forgiveness she said:

Download
Listen to “Jo DeMarco Out Take”

Bobby Van Cura is one of the two local detectives (the other Steve Toth) who worked on my mother’s case. Bobby met my mother when she was in the emergency room, and he and Steve became huge parts of our lives for the next year. Thankfully, they are still part of our lives. My interview with Bobby was surprisingly emotional. I felt so vulnerable, as though all the cells in my body were on high alert all over again. He knows everything. What happened to my mom. How close she came to dying. He’s one of the guys who tackled McFadden literally trying to run away, and arrested him. When I listen back to our conversation, I can hear the vulnerability in my voice. This bit of tape of Bobby and I talking about forgiveness slays me.

Download
Listen to “Bobby Van Cura Out Take”
The house where my mother was living in 1994.
The house where my mother was living in 1994.























Time

There’s no way this piece could have been made without the time it took to make it: Twenty plus years from the actual event, nearly three years of field-work, and a month of close daily work with Jay Allison to write it and produce it.

Some things simply take as long as they take. I am grateful to have had huge support throughout — from family, friends, and co-workers — to keep on keeping on.

And yet, despite the fact that I worked on this for as long as I did and that the final piece is an hour long, I still wasn’t able to include all the people I interviewed or interview all the people I wanted to.

In addition to Jo De Marco and Bobby Van Cura (mentioned above) I also had the opportunity to interview James Gilligan. Gilligan is a psychiatrist who — among other things — served as the director for the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.

His book, Violence: A National Epidemic first gave me perspective on the causes of violence in this country and in individuals like McFadden. When I interviewed Gilligan I kept thinking: This man sat across from the worst of the worst and he is still hopeful and optimistic that with the right supports, people can change. His book, meeting him — knowing there are others like him in the world — makes me feel hopeful.

Download
Listen to “James Gilligan Out Take”
A recent photo of my mom and her longtime partner, John.
A recent photo of my mom and her longtime partner, John.

 

From My Mom

I asked my mother if there were anything she’d like to say here on Transom. This is what she sent:

“I have been asked by those close to me how it has been to have Samantha producing this piece. My answer has been that it has felt good. I am so proud of her work and I am grateful. My feeling of being pressed to write a book has been lifted and replaced by relief that the story of what has so strongly impacted my family and community of friends and those involved was being told so well by my very own daughter. Some of the interviews provide me with more strength and courage as I battle with day-to-day survival. Gratitude and many thanks to Jay Allison and the Transom team for unending support, compassion and willingness to listen over the many months it took to get this “just right.””

Thanks And Dedication

First and foremost, thank you to my mother for her extraordinary courage. I love you.

I am also hugely grateful to Jay Allison for taking this on — me, this story, this amount of tape, this amount of emotion, this amount of time. All of it. Jay was the perfect guide for both Producer Me and Me Me. He seemed to know the exact right moments to swoop in and — as he says — provide me with oxygen when I was deep in the cave of working on this.

Thank you to all the people I interviewed: Jeremy Brown, James Gilligan, Timothy Broun, Mark Singel, Ernest Preate, Martin Horn, Bobby Van Cura, Tyrone Werts, Tom Ridge, Charlotte McFadden, Dr. Julia Hall, John McCullough, Jo DeMarco, and Mark Safarik.

Thanks to Nancy Rosenbaum for her sleuthing skills and Daniel Denvir for doing a huge favor for a stranger. Thanks to Melissa Allison, Sydney Lewis and Viki Merrick for all their support. Thanks to my father, Daniel Broun, for always asking how the work was going, and to John Wolanski for being my mother’s rock. And to Rob Rosenthal, thank you for keeping me honest and upright (literally).

This piece is dedicated to Jeremy Brown, Sonia Rosenbaum, Robert Silk, Margaret Kierer, Dana Demarco; to their families; to the thousands of lifers who are behind bars in Pennsylvania without hope for a second chance; and to the Tombs Angel.

Books

These are just some of the books that have helped me make sense of all this the past 20 years. I recommend them all.

Violence: Reflections On A National Epidemic by James Gilligan

All God’s Children: The Bosket Family And The American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield

Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in a New South Africa by Antije Krog

Crime And The Politics of Hysteria by David Anderson

True American: Murder And Mercy in Texas by Anand Giriharadas

Music In The Piece

“Remember Me As A Time Of Day” by Explosions In The Sky

Various by Stellwagen Symphonette

“Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” by Stars Of The Lid

“Villa del Refugio” by This Will Destroy You

“They Move On Tracks Of Never Ending Light” by This Will Destroy You

“Ambient Shimmers” by Stellwagen Symphonette

“Elliot’s Dream” by 3 Leg Torso

“Luppulagio (Live)” by Sigur Ros

“Burial On The Presidio Banks” by This Will Destroy You

“Memorial” by Explosions In The Sky

“First Breath After Coma” by Explosions In The Sky

“Can Light Be Found In Darkness” by Gustavo Santaolalla, Soundtrack for 21 Grams

“Did This Really Happen” by Gustavo Santaolalla, Soundtrack for 21 Grams

“You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash

 

 

Support for this work provided by the
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts logo

 

Comments

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  • John McCullough

    3.02.16

    Reply

    A Life Sentence” is a powerful story of Samantha’s journey through the stages of her own and her mother’s victimization and through the often confusing and usually frustrating criminal justice system. She touched with clarity the dilemmas of releasing lifers, the effects one horrible act on individuals and on society, and the agonies of being a victim of a violent crime. It was a refreshing look at a common issue because Samantha does not find fault or take sides or politicize the McFadden tragedy but instead explores with wisdom and understanding this tragic story. For those of us in corrections, and particularly in Pennsylvania prisons and parole at the time of the crime, it is a must listen which will renew but then close this chapter in our history with a new understanding.

    The interview with McFadden”s sister is riveting.

  • Joyce Dominguez

    3.02.16

    Reply

    Samantha,
    I am grateful to you for this truthful, clear, personal, and deep look into this life episode. As a singer, I cried along with your mom when she talked of her loss. I will think of you both every time I sing You are my Sunshine to my grandkids for the rest of my life. As a sister, I cried along with my brother Mark and feel sorrow for all involved. My heart aches for lifers with no hope. I pray for healing for us all. Lord, have mercy.

  • Sara

    3.02.16

    Reply

    What an incredibly powerful and moving piece! Although I am a criminal defense attorney who has spent the last several years advocating for release of a lifer, I can never stop thinking about the victims of my client’s crime as well. Samantha’s piece is so nuanced and thoughtful. I wish all of society—DAs, defense attorneys, judges, politicians—would learn from Samantha and her very brave mother.

  • Ruby

    3.03.16

    Reply

    Samantha, thank you for this piece. Dana Demarco was my aunt- My mother’s sister and my grandmother’s daughter. Her murder was the first in three great tragedies that our family has encountered. I think the thing that stands out for me the most in your recordings and writings, as well as my personal experience is the overwhelming resiliency of the human spirit. I think that trait, that earmark of a survivor shines brightly in your mother, and in yourself, and I see the same light in my grandmother, who loves live and God in spite of all that has been. It is truly remarkable and gives me hope. It is stories of strength that I draw my own courage on in dealing with the passing of my own mother two years ago. It is no easy thing to face great horrors and not only endure but thrive, and stand up and tell your story for the world to see. I hope that as your mother’s story shared through your telling is passed around the world, you may find a small bit of peace in knowing that so many are here sharing this pain. And may that lessen the pain just a bit. I know for me, shared pain is dulled pain, and so I thank you again for the pain, humanity and hope shared here. Much peace and love to you and your family.

  • Ed Borrazzo

    3.04.16

    Reply

    Listening to “A Life Sentence” was both horrifying and hopeful at the same time. It is filled with raw human emotion. With nuance and without judgement, Samantha leads each interview with the same intellect, strength, insight, and grace that I remember. You see, I knew Samantha and her family from back home. We grew up together, went to school together, shared many great times. I’ve even been to that house in Nyack on a few occasions. We’ve moved apart over the years, and I never knew this horrific incident occurred. I remember Jeremy being a loving, caring, kind, sweet, funny individual, and I can hear that those qualities still exist in her today. The last segment brings hope to victims of violent crime that with time, recovery is possible, and deep inside are the same wonderful qualities that make you beautiful. Sam, I hope you and your mom are doing OK. What a deeply moving and insightful documentary (your best yet!). Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Carmen Milano

    3.06.16

    Reply

    Deep thanks to Jeremy and Samantha for sharing this history. And deep gratitude to Samantha for examining and questioning the many and varied people affected by her testimony and the changes in Pennsylvania’s position on life sentencing. Being able to look out beyond the tragic personal harm, grief and loss is greatly appreciated. Listening to the conversations of mother and daughter reached quickly to my heart. Jeremy’s reply to the question about scars and not being able to sing after the assault was so unexpected and powerfully demonstrates the ability of violence to rob a person of their essence long after the physical body has perhaps repaired itself. Thank you for the reflections of McFadden’s sister, the politicians who ran for governor in the aftermath and the lifer who was one of the six released after the changes. This was a truly holistic examination of the life sentences that resulted from McFadden’s actions and beautifully presented.

  • jenniferroffe

    3.07.16

    Reply

    Beautifully done. Courageous, human, healing. My bird sings a bit more loudly as a result.

  • Stephen Stept

    3.10.16

    Reply

    Extraordinary piece, Samantha. I work with Lifers at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, PA, men who have been in prison for 20-40 years. These are brilliant, articulate, poetic and, especially, committed men determined to make a difference in their communities. Despite the despair of being unlikely to receive commutation, they are proof of a) that we are all, as Sister Helen Prejean has said, more than the worst thing we have ever done; and b) that “life means life” in both senses. I am also a colleague of Tyrone Werts as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. (Check out its website.) The fallout from McFadden on men like these is devastating. They have so much to contribute, and after all their years in prison, they are not only NOT a danger to society, but men who are poised to make a positive impact on the cause of criminal justice reform in our society. Our people in power need to be circumspect, but also more forgiving.

    I wonder, Samantha, if you speak to prison populations. I hope you do or will. Thank you for telling your painful, yet hopeful story.

    • Samantha Broun

      3.11.16

      Reply

      Hi Stephen,

      It means a lot to me that lifers in Pennsylvania might hear this piece. If I can be there with them when they do, that would be even better. Please let me know if we can make that happen – either virtually or in person.

  • ColQuilts

    4.04.16

    Reply

    Wow. What an incredible piece. Sam, I am incredibly touched by insight, your compassion and quest for forgiveness. It is hard to put into words how I feel after listening to this. I am a rape crisis counselor and have seen many rape survivors but not as physically injured as your Mom. I could see of the face of each one I have accompanied to the ER as your Mom spoke of her experience. I have always viewed your Mom as a strong woman, but listening to her speak, she is really an incredible human being. Your interviews with Mark Singel and Charlotte McFadden were riveting. I always thought Tim’s little sister, was a cool kid, but you’ve grown up into a brave, intelligent and compassionate woman! I hope this has given you some peace.

  • John Barclay Photography

    4.15.16

    Reply

    So very proud of my cousin Samantha, my Aunt Jeremy and my cousin Tim. Sam, thank you for providing this important piece. I especially enjoyed the last minute with you and your mom singing… tears were streaming down my face as I listened. Love you all.

  • writealetta

    4.25.16

    Reply

    Dear Samantha, I am blown away. While i was moved to tears throughout the piece, my eyes spill again now, thinking of your mom describing your brothers reaction on seeing her. The heaviness. The pain. Your vulnerability. Your quest for forgiveness. The journey for healing and resilience. Sharing conversations that you have never had with your family, with us. Thank you. Listening to your story was surprisingly validating for me. I have spent the last 10 years or so working with people serving life in PA. Honestly, the effort to Restore Meaningful Commutation is an unpopular cause. Not only is it bureaucratic detail of parole in PA that is hard to comprehend and explain. It’s a process of mercy that would release people who have perpetrated violence, more specifically murderers. And people who have killed or were involved in a killing (outside of the military) are a class of people, who even in many prison justice circles are untouchable. So to hear you embrace the complexity as someone impacted by this great harm, someone who recognizes the injustice of excessive punishment, and someone who believes that people can change is remarkable. We just launched our Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation at the beginning of this month. Our goal is to create opportunities for deserving lifers to find relief Maybe you would be interested in working with us? We are heading to Harrisburg in June to lobby law makers about our reform ideas. Also, is there a written transcript of the piece? I would like to send it our friends inside. And – inspired by a previous comment – maybe we could organize you to go the Cambridge Springs and meet with the women there and listen to the story together. Over 50 women have applied for commutation in the last 25 years. Not one commuted.

    Sending beams of gratitude,
    etta cetera – letsgetfreepa@gmail.com
    letsgetfree.info

  • John W. Morris

    5.03.16

    Reply

    By chance I heard this superb production on a subject of renewed interest to me. When I was at Penn Law, I took a job as pardons caseworker at a Delaware prisoners aid organization. At that time, clemency formed an integral part of the criminal justice system, performing several functions. It equalized sentences that were overly harsh, it recognized rehabilitation and served as an aid to rehabilitation, it was used as a compassionate measure for the sick and elderly and it provided an economical process in cases of actual innocence. Most important, it provided hope for inmates and a method of exemplifying the productive use of a prison sentence.
    As pointed out, Reginald McFadden put an end to the role of clemency and gave one more example of how politicians can always capitalize on crime. And it ended hope for aging lifers in Pennsylvania.
    Then,almost 50 years after my last experience with pardons, a retired social worker , a former prison mate, and a current justice official asked me to assist in a clemency application for Robert Altland who as an aimless, drug using 19 year old pointlessly shot a colleague. Sentenced to life without parole, Bob endured the usual tough couple of years of prison before recognizing that life was still his to define. Starting with personal issues of dependencies and anger management, he moved on to acquiring skills useful in prison: maintenance, electronics, hospice care, etc. Then he caught up on education: GED, an associates degree and finally a bachelors degree (summa cum laude) from Villanova. His prison record is spotless. Bob is now 55 years old and has spent the last 36 years in prison. He is described as an example to all long-term inmates. He is smart, compassionate and, of course, regretful that he was not at age 19 the person that he is today.
    Bob and I are working on his application. He presents a model case for clemency and has the benefit of legal representation that most lifers lack. Yet, we both know that the odds are not good.

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