Wednesday, March 30, 2016

STRANGE DAYS, INDEED

He was the son of a banker, but he felt like a loser. While his friends were buying houses and stepping up in the world, 27-year-old Marty Strange was struggling to stay afloat. It was him, and his wife, Melanie, and their two children — boys, ages 2 and 4 — in an apartment just outside Branson.

On the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1989, the Strange family went on a boat with Marty's father. On the water, they watched other couples, other families. Marty said something about one day maybe having a boat of their own.

"Some people are luckier in love than others," Melanie said. And Marty's vision started to narrow as the sun set.

That night, back in their apartment, they got ready for bed. Melanie turned to Marty. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," he replied in his mild voice. Only he wondered why he had a knife in his hand.

For the next several minutes, Marty Strange's memory was a series of photographs: the knife at Melanie's throat. A bathrobe sash around one son's neck. Marty's hands clenched around the other son's throat.

Then he heard a knife clatter in the sink. The shower was running. He was naked. And cold. Cold.

He put his family in the bed where Melanie died. He turned down the thermostat and drove away.

They caught Marty Strange a few days later, and he eventually went to trial and was convicted of murder. The jury then had to decide whether he should live or die.

In attendance at that trial in Forsyth was a man named Howard Kenyon. His body was in a wheelchair but his mind was too big to be confined. Smart guy. Good guy. We talked trial strategy and personalities and the horror of the crime, and whether Marty was insane when he killed his family.

When it came time for the jury to return with its recommended punishment it was close to deadline. There was one pay phone at the end of the corridor outside the courtroom. Every other reporter would want to use it first.

Howard and I became partners. He would sit in the courtroom and hear the jury's decision. I would stand outside the courtroom, looking through the window in the door. One finger for death, two fingers for life. That was our code.

Howard lifted one finger. I sprinted for the pay phone, snagged it, got the news back to the Factory. Other reporters had to wait. That's the way to do it.

Howard deserved a byline that day.

(Marty Strange never went to death row. The evidence of his lifelong mental illness was strong. The judge found a procedural error in the charges and convinced the prosecution to cut a deal — life in prison, no parole. Marty is still in prison.)

Howard Kenyon left his wheelchair behind today. It is too late to tell him how much I appreciated him — not just the solid on the jury verdict, but his kindnesses in the years since. He could have viewed life as a burden. He lived it with joy.

Thank you, Howie.

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