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Donald Miller

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Yesterday, I was sitting on the love seat not doing much of anything when I came across a little true crime segment on a show called “Dateline on ID”–I presume it was a Dateline segment that the ID channel bought for its own use, or rented, or something.

But what is important isn’t that.   And I don’t even know if it’s important.

The thing was, this was the second half of a two part series on a serial killer named Donald Miller, and Donald Miller is the second of the two serial killers who were operating in my vicinity while I was in graduate school.  Miller was actually closer than the first one.

The first one was Theodore Robert Bundy, whom I found out, years after the fact, was in Ann Arbor and on the prowl for victims while I was living there.  It was a little creepy in retrospect, because Bundy was just the kind of man I used to like to date in those days–the right physical type, the right academic interests.

And I think it may be indicative of something sane deep in the heart of me that when I finally married, I married somebody nothing at all like the guys I used to date in graduate school.

Donald Miller was nothing like those guys, but unlike Bundy, I found out about him while he was still killing girls and during the time he was arrested.  I’d been back east over the summer, but I returned to East Lansing to teach while the hunt for the rapist/murderer was at full pitch, and he was caught no more than a couple of weeks after I returned.

It was a huge case in that part of Michigan.  There were, if I remember correctly, six victims, including the younger brother of a girl who managed to escape the attack.  The problem was, even with a surviving victim, there wasn’t enough evidence to actually convict Miller of the other rape murders.

What the police and prosecutors did instead was to charge him on the one attempted rape they could get him on, and then offer him a deal in exchange for information on where he’d buried the other bodies.

There was a lot of outrage in the area at the time, including from women’s groups who accused the police of not taking rape seriously, but it was probably all they could have done.  The only other alternative they had was to charge him on the attempted rape and watch him walk out on bail–which he almost certainly would have done–and then watch him until he killed another girl.  That last didn’t seem very sensible to the authorities at the time and it never seemed very sensible to me.

All that was back in the late 1970s, and I hadn’t heard a word about Miller since.  I did remember that there was concern at the time that the deal would allow him to get out of prison.  But I won’t say I thought much about him, although I never did forget him.  For a while there we were all checking the bushes every time we came home alone, and of course, like most of these guys, he was stalking college girls with long dark hair parted in the middle.

I mean, is there something about serial killers that they always seem to look for college girls with long dark hair parted in the middle?  Bundy liked that, too.

The Dateline on ID program was about Miller’s trial on a charge of having a weapon while in prison, the weapon in this case being a knotted shoelace he’d bought from the prison store.

And the rules of evidence being what they are, the jury was not allowed to hear anything about the crimes Miller was in prison for, all of which involved strangling and some of which involved the use of common household objects (like shoelaces) as weapons.

And it was interesting to me to see him in the courtroom.  Unlike Bundy, he’s not in the least charismatic.  He’s not goodlooking, either, and he doesn’t come off as very bright.

Although he was a criminal justice major in college, which is interesting in itself.

His parents were there, still hoping that they would some day be able to bring him home, and still supporting him.  They seemed like nice people, and they were not in denial about the things he had done.  They knew he had committed the murders he couldn’t be charged with.

Their take was that Miller was mentally ill, which might be true.  I do have a problem with labeling criminals “mentally ill,” though, when the definition only seems to fit if everybody who commits a violent crime is mentally ill by virtue of the fact that he committed the crime.

That is, I think there’s too much in the psychiatric approach to violent criminals that simply assumes that anybody who would resort to violent criminality must have some kind of disease–that violent criminality is always a symptom of a mental disease, because mentally “healthy” people don’t commit violent crimes.

I know I sound like I’m going around in circles, but the people who put out these ideas about criminals are going around in circles themselves.

I’ll stick to my conviction that the only time we are free to choose is when we are free to choose badly.  To imply that mentally “healthy” people are incapable of choosing to do violence or crime is to imply that they’re not free to choose anything at all.

The significance of Donald Miller’s trial for having a weapon in prison was that, if it went against him, it would constitute his fourth felony conviction.  Under  Michigan law, four felony convictions would make Miller an habitual offender, and the judge could put him in prison permanently–the outcome they wanted back in the 70s, and couldn’t get.

Well, they got the conviction.  The judge sentenced Miller to another twenty to forty years, which means it will be twenty years from that date before Miller is eligible to come up for parole.  His parents are in their sixties, and they pointed out to the filmmakers that they will be in their eighties before they have a chance of their son being released.

Part of me wonders if Miller doesn’t particularly want to be relased–if that is, in fact, the reason for the knotted shoelace.  Part of me wonders if the knotted shoelace was, maybe, literally nothing–if he knotted it the way I flip pens when I’m thinking about something and have too much nervous energy.

And part of me wonders about the nature of people who do murder.  I know that that bores the hell out of some of you, but I still find it fascinating.

There’s the case of Mary Bell, for instance, who, at the age of ten, murdered two small children in her neighborhood by strangling them.  She did it quite deliberately, and in fact went to great lengths to lure them into out of the way places in order to kill them.

She went to prison in England and was released at the age of, I think, twenty-five, because, as a juvenile offender under the law of that time (this was in the 50s, I think), she had to be.

She changed her name, moved someplace nobody knew her, got married and had children and has never been in trouble with the law for so much as a traffic ticket since. 

I have absolutely no idea what all that is about.

I’d like to know.

In the meantime, remembering that fall in Michigan, I’m just as glad Donald Miller is away for good or close to it, and maybe I’ll leave it at that.

P.S.  The television miniseries about the Pacific is made by the same guys who did Band of Brothers–Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  I don’t know.  For some reason, the Pacific theater never sparked my imagination the way the European theater did.  Maybe because I had family in Europe but not in the Pacific.

Written by janeh

March 8th, 2010 at 10:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Donald Miller'

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  1. Talking about child murderers like Mary Bell – Jon Venables, one of the killers of James Bulger, has been out on ‘life license’ for a while, but is now recalled to prison for reasons that are not being released. I wish I could remember more of the details – I seem to recall that one boy was presented as being more likely to be rehabilitated than the other, but I can’t remember which. I don’t understand why James’ mother wants to know why Venables was recalled; I think I would simply feel satisfied he was back in.

    While I am interested in reading about criminals, in real life what horrifies me (besides the suffering of the victim) is what it must be like to be a family member, especially a parent, of such a person. Sometimes, of course, they’re either willfully blind or in denial or “my boy right or wrong” activists; the late matriarch of a rather infamous local family used to make periodic appearances in the media proclaiming that the police were just picking on her boys out of prejudice. And the recent crop of parents and aunts who can’t imagine why someone would break into their houses and assault them and their son/nephew.

    But you also get the parents who’ve done their best, but their child goes horribly off the rails anyway. It makes me wonder about the limits of love and the lack of limits on the damage one human can do to another.


    8 Mar 10 at 1:21 pm

  2. The reaction of a murderer’s family is depicted interestingly: BEFORE AND AFTER by Rosellen Brown. The son in family kills his girlfriend. The father’s response was “my son right or wrong,” and shielding him from consequences was his duty as a father. The mother, while loving her son, feels he should be held accountable.
    In Gadsden, Alabama, where I grew up, Glenn Holladay murdered his ex-wife, her boyfriend and a neighbor in 1986 and has been imprisoned since shortly after that. Holladay grew up a mile or so from where I lived. His father painted our house once. He was on death row until 2003 when he was to be executed. But because he met the legal definition of mental retardation he was not executed. In 2009 a local judge sentenced him to life imprisonment without chance of parole. My quarrel with this is not that he won’t be executed. I am not in favor of the death penalty. This is certainly an objective viewpoint. If any of my family or friends were victims I’m sure my perspective would be more visceral. My question is whether moderate mental retardation (his IQ was 56 or so) precludes the ability to determine right and wrong and act accordingly?


    8 Mar 10 at 4:18 pm

  3. We had a case some years back when a teenaged girl disappeared from a tiny community with no history of violent crime and in which everyone knew each other well and many were related. It turned out that a boy of about the same age – actually the last person known to have seen her – had raped and murdered her. He confessed to his parents, who insisted he come forward and take responsibility. I think the feeling against the whole family was so strong that they eventually left the community. But there you have it – no history of violence in the boy, family or community, a family who combined loving support of their son with an insistance that he take responsibility for what he did and take his punishment – and a dead girl whose family and community haven’t been the same since.

    There’s the ability to distinguish right from wrong, suggestibility (which is where some slow or very young people can be too influenced by their company) and then there’s impulse. Carried away during violent sex, or while taunting or bullying another child. It’s not an excuse, but I think it makes the unthinkable a little more comprehensible.

    And then you have the tendency to accuse anyone trying to understand a murderer of trying to excuse his actions and blame the victim.

    I think I’m beginning to ramble. I have to get supper and ransack the place looking for a book and DVD the library says I haven’t returned.


    8 Mar 10 at 5:46 pm

  4. Not just parents. When the Wall came down, the German Federal police picked up a woman belonging to Bader-Meinhoff for, I believe, three murders. She had a husband and two young children. I don’t know how much of her history her husband knew, but whether it was a surprise to him or not, he got to explain to the kids why Mommy wasn’t coming home.

    Evidence, though. Sometimes we treat the rules of evidence as though they’re natural phenomena. Obviously you need strict rules against falsification of evidence. I can readily see why coerced testimony is troublesome even when it can be verified by physical evidence. But when considering whether a knotted shoelace is a weapon and what the appropriate punishment might be, NOT to be able to say “this person led police to the bodies of six people killed with a very similar device” seems to me to be demented. The traditional blindfuld ought to signify that Justice pays no heed to status–rich or poor, man or woman, white or black. It ought not to signify willful ignorance of pertinent facts.


    8 Mar 10 at 10:51 pm

  5. You know, the insanity defense is very seldom used, and when used, is seldom successful. The ones who get psychiatric hospitalization instead of prison tend to be floridly psychotic. Now sure, there are people, and certainly parents, who *claim* insanity was the cause.



    8 Mar 10 at 10:57 pm

  6. Mellanie Phillips has an interesting take on the Venables case here:



    8 Mar 10 at 11:43 pm

  7. Melanie Phillips has some good points, but no solutions to the problem of dealing with child killers. I mean, children who are killers. I think she’s right on the vigilante mob thing, too. Of course, there have always been such mobs, but I think today we tend to pick certain things to react to hysterically partly because there are so many things we used to use to vent against that are now taboo to criticize and because we lack a firm structure to base our reactions on. We go overboard on what’s left – in other examples, this morning I heard a radio interview about parents attempting to control every moment of their childrens’ lives out of exaggerated fears and anxieties about the dangers to children, and a day or so ago I read what I though was a very silly article about the mania for massive public mourning over people the mourners never even knew – eg that fashion designer who committed suicide recently, Princess Diana of course and a good few local but highly publicized tragedies of one kind or the other. The article put all this down to the scattered modern family who doesn’t get a chance to mourn properly at the graveside of their own family (due to it being too far away, or not existing or existing in a massive modern graveyard, although why that should inhibit visits and tributes, I don’t know). I tend to put it down to the need to connect in a disconnected world. I can always – and quite safely – scream abuse at selected criminal targets, especially the ones who can’t get back at me and put a bunch of flowers outside the residence of a dead celebrity or at the spot a particularly innocent victim died. I can’t do a damn thing about most of the evils that afflict me and I might not even have somewhere to especially remember a close friend or relative who has died, but hey, I can demonstrate publicly that I stand up for what’s right by participating in a mob or going through mourning rituals for some stranger.

    And I think Cathy’s right – the cases here that have involved insanity defenses have all involved seriously psychotic individuals. Whether some of them should have been forced into institutional care…oh, well, that’s another debate. But the stupid, impressionable, depressed, anxious, having assorted personality disorders … they tend to get convicted (or not) rather than ending up in the forensic ward of the local psychiatric hospital. Children do (and should) have special status, with mid to late teens, IIRC, running the possibility of being treated as an adult in court.


    9 Mar 10 at 7:48 am

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