Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Depraved-Heart Murder

A couple of years ago, I happened to see Fred Kaplan’s book 1959 on a display table at Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis. It caught my eye because I was born in the year Kaplan takes for his title.

At last I’m reading the book, and am finding it thoroughly engrossing.

One figure from ’59 whom I wasn’t too familiar with before opening the book is William S. Burroughs. I certainly didn’t know the shocking story about his fatal game of “William Tell” with Joan Vollmer, his common-law wife.

Burroughs had fled to Mexico because he feared being sent to Louisiana’s Angola State Prison on marijuana charges. According to Wikipedia, he intended to stay in Mexico for five years, until the statute of limitations on the Louisiana charge expired.

One afternoon in 1951, however, Burroughs killed Vollmer in a drunken riff on William Tell. On Kaplan’s account, she had placed a champagne glass on her head and dared him to shoot.

Burroughs picked up his pistol and missed the glass. Instead, he shot and killed his wife.

Though Burroughs was jailed in Mexico City, he ended up serving only 13 days in jail. Wikipedia asserts that Burroughs’ brother bribed Mexican authorities to get him released on bail — and that Burroughs eventually absconded and left Mexico.

Reading about this case reminded me of studying criminal law with Prof. Bruce Berner in my first year at Valparaiso University School of Law. What common law concept did Burroughs’ behavior best illustrate? The phrase “depraved heart” comes to mind.

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