by Pat Hartman

(Originally published at Moving Target, August 3, 2002)

I call the local newspaper and learn that the Hettrick/Masters chronicle is contained in a "clip file," which can be copied for $40. Or more, if the copying takes longer than an hour. (Do the writers get a slice?) Useful to know, but as it turns out, the copying isn't needed. A couple of people in the news business tell me what to look for and where.

Next stop, the public library. All in all, the micro reading process is fairly grueling. I never do catch on to the logic of the page arrangement, but manage to lurch around and eventually hit paydirt.

One of the reporters who wrote about the investigation is kind enough to answer factual questions and share his insights. That discussion leads to another round of looking up stuff.

As above, so below. On one level, there's research. On another, the soul-search is in progress. Why am I doing this? Do I truly want to spend life-energy pursuing the details of a sordid, bloody crime? Does it matter that a young man, who may or may not have killed a woman, was convicted on evidence that even the most generous assessment can only characterize as slim?

Other writing projects howl for my attention. And if I yearn to explore an injustice, there are many more blatant ones to choose from, affecting thousands or millions of people. So why get all bent out of shape over a murder conviction, however equivocal? We've all seen too many Kennedy assassination buffs, OJ trial aficionados, and Jon-Benet theorists. I doubt there are many other students of this crime, not since the death of Clyde Masters, Timothy's father. The defense attorney, of course, And the police. We're a small but elite group, we Hettrick murder buffs.
While I don't strive for a constant state of righteous anger, every few years a current event (previous examples being the MOVE firebombing and the Mt. Carmel massacre) gets its teeth into me and won't let go.

Of all the constitutional amendments, it is the First of which I am most fond. And this is a First Amendment issue. It's, like, a prior restraint thing. If people can't exercise self-expression in writing and drawing, for fear of being accused of murder when someone happens to be killed in their neighborhood, this definitely, to borrow an elegant phrase, "offends the guarantee of free speech."

But what if Masters actually did kill Hettrick? What if my writing about him contributes in any way to the release of a murderer? How can I live with that? The weak argument is: already there are far worse killers at large, set free for far worse reasons. The return of Timothy Masters to society would mean a statistically negligible danger.

A more satisfying argument is: Overall, the greater good is served when occasionally a miscreant escapes punishment - if the alternative would be wrongful punishment of the innocent. The outrageous notion that an accused can be convicted on the basis of lousy art work is an idea we can't afford to normalize. The greater good requires that it be quashed.

Presently at issue is whether Masters will be granted a new trial. This possibility rests on how the Colorado state supreme court feels about a few nit-picking technicalities (that was sarcasm you just heard). A new trial could free the prisoner, but probably could not, ultimately, bring us any closer to the truth. After all this time it's unlikely that incontrovertible evidence will materialize. Absent a surprise confession, by Masters or someone else, there is little hope that anyone will ever really know what happened that night in 1987.

But suppose it does turn out that he did it? On my mental video monitor, Emily Litella launches a rant and then, once the mistaken premise is brought to her attention: "Never mind." If Timothy Masters is somehow proven to have killed Peggy Hettrick, will I feel like a fool?

Well, no. Because his guilt or innocence is incidental to the substance of the matter. It is the basis for his conviction that sticks in my craw. Sent up for life for drawing scary, ugly pictures: the very concept is beyond repugnant. For my purposes, whether he did the murder or not is beside the point. If he's innocent, that's just the poisonous icing on the already putrescent cake.