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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 1, 2005

Editorial —Let us lean on each other

The news from Guilderland this week was sad. The front page says it all.

An elderly couple burned to death in their home. A young man from Guilderland tried to rob a bank, holding four hostages, and then killed himself. Another young man from Guilderland was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit.

If paper could weep, the front page would be stained with tears.

Printed words are silent messengers. But we who write those words can hear the voices that spoke to us this week and in times past.

We can hear the playful tone in Sean Murphy’s voice as he came to our home to walk our dog last year. He wrestled happily with our big, rambunctious Airedale and told us how a nine-to-five job wasn’t for him. He wasn’t on the fast track to conventional success, he said; he had started a pet-care business because he wanted to do the things he enjoyed in life.

How did he end up trying to rob a bank"

As we listened this week to another young man from Guilderland, being sentenced to life in prison, we wondered what had happened to the boy who had wept to hear a guilty verdict in June. Erick Westervelt spoke with stunning control last Thursday — his voice did not waver — as he told the judge the guilty verdict had been "an absolute mockery of justice."

His lawyer told us later that what Westervelt is focusing on is getting a retrial: "He’s holding it together...He’s putting his hope in that," he said.

We thought a lot this week about the families of both of these men. As far as we knew, they had given their sons the sort of upbringing that is considered an American ideal — the boys had attended Guilderland schools, participated in sports and community events, had friends who liked them.

We believe families cannot be blamed or credited for their grown children’s actions. A young man of 22, like Murphy, or 23, like Westervelt, is responsible for himself. Yet, whether we embrace or reject our families, each one of us is inextricably bound by family. Beginning with our name, family is how we form an identity and how we are identified. Our family is part of who we are and of how the community perceives us.

In the Albany County courtroom Thursday morning, we could see the pain on both sides of the aisle. Westervelt’s family sat on one side; the family of the murdered man, Timothy Gray, sat on the other.

Gray’s sister and then his father spoke in stirring tones of the loving brother and strong son Timothy Gray had been. They also spoke of their devastating loss.

"Sometimes it’s hard to even get out of bed," said Jennifer Gray.

"I told him I loved him and I hope he heard," said George Gray, describing how he held his son’s hand as he lay dying in the hospital.

What they wanted, in urging a sentence of life in prison, was justice.

Jennifer Gray told the court why she thought that was fair. "Erick and his family should be robbed of their futures the way my family was," she said.

George Gray said that Erick Westervelt’s parents "will always be known as the parents of a convicted murderer."

Jennifer Gray addressed Westervelt directly, "I heard you call my brother a loser," she said. "But I think the real loser here is you." She said that, when Westervelt is in state prison, his friends will move on. "In the end, you will be alone and you will be the real loser," she said.

Being alone — that is the harshest punishment society has to offer the living. Many societies use shunning as punishment. Even in prison, a punishment in itself because the prisoner is cut off from society at large, solitary confinement is inflicted as a further penalty.

After the sentencing, as Westervelt was ushered out the center aisle of the courtroom by guards, members of the Gray family tearfully hugged each other while Westervelt’s family remained immobile.

Erick Westervelt, his face expressionless, caught the eye of his father as he was marched past.

"We know you're innocent," John Westervelt quietly told his son.

While Jennifer Gray and the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case spoke to the scrum of television reporters in the corridor outside the courtroom, the Westervelts did not; they hid in the courtroom.

We do not blame them. Nor do we blame Sean Murphy’s mother for not returning our calls this week. We remember how proud she was as she told us last year about her son’s pet-care business.

We would like to share what we learned this week from listening to the chief of the McKownville Fire Department, David Clancy. He told us how hard it was for him and for his firefighters to have done their jobs well, to have rushed to the scene of a burning house, to have quickly and ably doused the flames — but to have been unable to rescue the couple inside.

The chief said of volunteer firefighters, "Their mission is to protect life. And it’s tough to deal with when you can’t do that. You have a sense of helplessness. You’re not doing what you were trained to do."

Clancy himself feels bad because he was the one who had to make the decision that it was too dangerous for another search crew to enter the burning house after the first crew was driven back by heat and flame.

We heard gratitude in Clancy’s voice when we told him what the daughter of the woman who died in the fire told us. She said the family decided that memorial contributions for her mother were to be sent to the McKownville Fire Department. "It had to be very hard for them," she said.

Clancy worried, too, about the reactions of some of his crew — losing life was new and hard — so he did something about it; he sought help. He called in a crisis management team, which worked with the group of firefighters as a whole.

"You share your emotions and your feelings to start to deal with it," something that is not always easy for a firefighter, Clancy said. "That allows the healing process to begin."

He told us how close-knit the firefighters are. "We’re leaning on each other to get through this," he said.

That’s good advice for all of us. Let us lean on each other. And let us be open to hearing each other and understanding each other.

Mary Jean Coleman, director of the Samaritan suicide-prevention program, told us how scarce resources were when her brother killed himself more than 25 years ago. Being able to talk about suicide makes a difference, she said.

"The more we can do to break down the awful stigma and silence that surrounds mental-health issues and thoughts of suicide, the more we make it okay to talk about it," said Coleman. "We can help people through this."

She also spoke about Sean Murphy’s death. "Regardless of these horrific events," she said, "we must remember that a family has lost a young man...We can’t make a judgment on death."

Friends and acquaintances of Murphy’s family should reach out to them and help them grieve, said Coleman. What she asks is difficult but worthwhile.

We write the local news each week as fairly and thoroughly as we know how. We include as many voices and viewpoints as are relevant. But we do not know how the words, once printed, are played out in the homes and hearts of our readers.

Some of our words will languish, never read, never discussed. But for others, our words may inform, may shed new light, may change opinions, may galvanize action.

What we ask this week, in our editorial space here, is this: We ask that our words are not used to further isolate families in need. We ask for compassion for the two families in our community whose sons have been in the glare of the news. We ask that the Westervelts and the Murphys not be shunned. We ask our community to embrace them in this, their time of need.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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