Jury’s discussion of Nenno as a situational vs. predatory criminal
Reading the Verdict
Discussion with judges and prosecutors
Talking with the victim’s father
Discussion with the defense attorneys
Table of Contents
CHAMMAH: All right, well we’re here on August seventeenth, 2011, at the home of Mr. Calvin Wilhelm, in Overland Park, Kansas. Myself, Maurice Chammah, is conducting the interview and Emily Smith is behind the camera. I guess if you’d like to begin by just giving us a broad sketch of your background, where you’re from and grew up, what led you to Houston in the nineties.
MR. CALVIN WILHELM: Yeah. Well, I was born in Virginia, lived in Virginia for five years, and then, my family is originally from New Jersey, so we then went from Virginia to New Jersey, until I was about thirteen. Then I was in Japan for about three years, and came back, lived in Oregon for a year, and then went back to New Jersey again. And then started college in New Jersey, and then transferred out to the University of Oregon, graduated from the University of Oregon, and then worked in various places since then. Started off with the C.I.A. in Washington, and then went to Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans, then out to Lockheed ship-building in Seattle, and then I went with McDonald-Douglas to Saudi Arabia for four years. And came back from Saudi Arabia, was working for National Semiconductor, in Mountain View, California, and then I ended up in the Washington D.C. area with Grumman, which is now Northrop Grumman, and during that time is when I transferred from the Washington area, after being there about five years or so, to Houston, to work at the Johnson Space Center, for Northrop Grumman, on a project they had just won. So I ended up staying there for about, long, I got there November of ninety-two, and I stayed until I guess some time end of ninety-six, I guess. And then I came up here. I’ve been with a company, Black and Veatch for about twelve years, and I did a lot of the international projects that they have there, in China, Indonesia, India, places like that.
CHAMMAH: These are engineering projects?
WILHELM: Mostly power plant project. Power plants and refineries. Then, of course, in 2005, I ended up in Iraq with Black and Veatch, on water projects, sewer systems in Baghdad. And then I went from Iraq in 2006, early 2006, I went to India for a sulphur-recovery unit project, Black and Veatch, and that ended in December 2006, and then I ended up in Afghanistan, January 2006, Black and Veatch still, and I stayed there until about February of 2008, and then with Black and Veatch again went down to South Africa, and we were there until about February of 2009. Now I’ve been working for a couple other outfits, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So that’s where I’m at right now. So it’s hard to say where I’m from.
CHAMMAH: Yeah. All over.
WILHELM: Mostly everybody likes to think I’m from New Jersey. I guess as a kid most of the time I grew up there, I suppose.
CHAMMAH: What do you think drove this interest in being all over the place?
WILHELM: Well I don’t know, actually. Even when I got out of high school I went to Europe, spent three months in Europe, traveled around. They were the good old days when it wasn’t so difficult to do. It was cheap and you didn’t need a lot of money. So I ended up spending three months every summer in Europe or whatever. I think in my junior year I left in the Spring session, and I took six months and went from Turkey overland to India, and then down into Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and then back. So that was a six-month trip. And ever since then I get stuck on all these crazy projects, so even if I don’t want them I’m pretty much stuck with them.
CHAMMAH: You’re one of the go-to guys for these.
WILHELM: Yeah, like with Black and Veatch I did all the international projects, almost. I mean I was involved with almost every one. Very few I wasn’t involved in the last ten years or so.
CHAMMAH: So you were in Houston in the mid-nineties.
WILHELM: Yeah. I got down there in November, right around November first, ninety-two, and I believe I left in January of ninety-seven to come up here. And yeah I went down there. We had just won the project for redoing all the computer systems at the space center, and a lot of other stuff, and I managed stay there, let’s see. The project didn’t actually start until January of ninety-three. So it was ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five, ninety-six, four years I was there workin’ on that project. And so during that time was when I got called for this lovely jury duty, which is an amazing process in and of itself.
CHAMMAH: Tell us about it. Did you get a letter?
WILHELM: Yeah. I got the typical letter, which you get in the mail. Bein’- I don’t know how old I was then, that was fifteen years ago, so it’s now, about forty one or so - I thought I’d gone all that time and not had any kind of interaction with jury duty at all. So I went down there, downtown to Houston and it’s one of these big, kind of auditorium places. A pretty huge place. I mean they call eight or nine hundred people in a day, I believe, and it’s like stadium seating. It’s a pretty amazing process.
WILHELM: Anyway they have a little judge stand down there, or desk, and they start basically calling people out, and they started lining them up in chairs, you know, and shuffling them off to the various courtrooms or what have you around the area, because there’s a lot of civil court and a lot of criminal court.
WILHELM: So I knew there was something strange when they started handing out packets. They started calling people and handing out packets, and I thought this is something different. Then I heard my name called, so I went down there and got this packet and it has a number on it and what have you and they basically shuffled all of us packet people into another conference room or some place nearby, and we were supposed to fill this out, and this was a questionnaire. The questionnaire was very comprehensive. I can’t remember how many pages it was, but it seemed like it was a hundred pages. It was just loads of questions, and about all kinds of strange things. Have you ever dated a lawyer? Have you ever known a lawyer? All kinds of- Has your mother ever gone out with a lawyer?
WILHELM: I mean, it was all kinds of crazy stuff, you know. Have you ever had a gun in the house? Have you ever, you know, tripped and fell? There was just a lot of really random questions in there, and it was just a really exhaustive process.
WILHELM: Now I wasn’t much inclined to be on a jury, frankly, and I thought about, well how am I going to figure out how to get off of this? I had heard all the guys back in the auditorium, “Well I’ve got to mow lawns, and I don’t have any way to make money.” You know, they’d get excused. In my case, I was with a company that paid for this stuff, so I didn’t really have a good excuse, frankly, but I was trying to figure one out. But I thought, okay, I’ll answer these questions, but I thought, maybe I can answer these questions in such a way that I’ll get dismissed.
WILHELM: But then I thought, okay, what’s the big deal here? I’m forty-one, or I’m a forty something year old white guy. What are they going to want a guy like me on a jury anyway? So I’ll get dismissed anyway. So I won’t have to worry about it one way or the other. So I decided to answer the questions, and I did, and then of course, I can’t remember exactly, because like I say it’s fifteen years ago. It seems to me that we filled out the questions and then we had to come back the next day, and I think when we came back the next day there were groups of us, like ten, fifteen people, or something, in a group, and we’d go into this room, sit there, and then they would call individual people into a room.
WILHELM: And I think one thing I missed in my analysis of the potential for me getting selected for this jury was the number on this envelope was two hundred and seventy seven or something like that, which, at the time it didn’t mean anything to me, but what it really meant was I was the two hundred and seventy seventh person interviewed for this jury. So, it was obvious they were running out of excuses to not include people on the jury.
WILHELM: So anyway I didn’t figure that out at the time. I went in there, they called me in there, and they had the judge. Then they had the prosecutor, a couple of prosecuting people, the attorneys for the defendant. The defendant was there, and the judge, essentially. And they started both asking questions, and I answered the questions the way, whatever it was, and you know the one fundamental question that the judge asked me was, “Do you have any problem with the death penalty?” basically, from a political point of view, or whatever kind of view.
WILHELM: I said, well, I think my answer was something like, I’m not fond of it, but it is what it is and the question went to, “Well, if you’re asked to make a decision, can you follow the law?” is the fundamental question.
WILHELM: And I said yes, I could do that. So anyway, then the prosecution said that I was acceptable to them, which was a little bit shocking at the time, because I wasn’t expecting that. They didn’t really ask me that many questions. I mean, they asked me five, six questions, typical, you know, who are you, where are you, kind of the stuff we were just talking about, how did you end up down here? All this kind of stuff. So I was a little bit shocked that it was so fast.
WILHELM: And then the judge turned to the defendant’s counsel and said, “Okay, what about you guys? What’s your story?”
WILHELM: And they huddled up for a quite a while. There was a going back and forth, back and forth. Eventually they said yes, so I was stuck. I can’t remember when this actually was. I think it was in October of ninety-five. I’m not exactly sure of the dates. And they said, “We’re not going to have the trial ‘til January.”
WILHELM: I’m thinkin’, Wow, this is a long stretch. And, they said, “And, you’re not supposed to read the newspaper or watch the news. And I’m like, that’s three months from now. So I manage to convince them to let me read the sports section, essentially, but they did agree, “Okay you can do it, but don’t read anything. about this stuff. If something comes on the T.V. about this particular case, don’t watch it.”
WILHELM: I said fine. I wasn’t going to do it anyway. So anyway, went on about our business there, and then of course we got to the trial phase and I had not been involved in any of this before. I don’t remember having any interaction with any of the jurors other than in the questioning phase, so we all went in there and sat down and they started the trial.
WILHELM: Now the guilt phase of the trial was fairly cut and dry, in my case. I mean, I was reading your other case [Juror Sean McMurrey on the trial of Alberto Segura, Jr. in Travis County] and I frankly would hate to be in that situation, to be honest with you. I would much rather be in my situation where it was a cut and dried situation. I mean this whole debating about whether somebody did or didn’t do something, believe me, is a terrible position to be in. It’s terrible. And no matter how much people think that it’s easy, it’s not, not if they’re taking it half, even remotely seriously. It’s agonizing. I had a cut and dry situation and it was agonizing.
WILHELM: So if you’re in a situation, for instance, where you have a person, where there is a bunch of circumstantial evidence which would lead you to believe that person might have done it, in a capital case, it’s agonizing, because you always know that there is something out there that might be, that might change your mind about whether they did or didn’t do it.
WILHELM: And it’s frankly shocking to me, the level of circumstantial evidence that can put people away, or give them the death penalty. It’s just amazing to me. It’s just peoples’ opinions. And you can sit down and, “I believe this is what happened.”
WILHELM: And that’s it, and people get sent away for a lot less than even what we had. Our particular case, the interesting thing about this case was, of course, it was the murder of an eight year-old girl. I happened to be driving up to College Station that day, the day of the incident, past the very neighborhood on the afternoon of the incident, which I believe was in May or something like that. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but quite a few months before I was called for jury duty. So I was a little bit, I mean, I knew about the case, because everybody sort of knew about it. It was in a place, far northwest Harris County, and it’s basically on the route going to College Station, Bryan/College Station, so people heard about it when it was going on. So I passed by there the very day, and then ended up on the jury for the thing. It’s a little bit coincidental.
WILHELM: But anyway, I mean the way the case unfolded is, the defense did a pretty good job with nothing. I mean, essentially, they had no evidence at all, but they still did a pretty good job in my opinion. The prosecutor had all the evidence, and basically they just laid out one thing after another, the story of the incident itself, and how they came to know that this person was involved, or did the crime. But the most incriminating piece of evidence is the fact that he has a signed confession. It’s pretty hard to beat that when you’re sitting in a jury room and you’re looking at a hard piece of paper, signed by this guy. The stuff that was on this confession, it’s hard for me to believe that anybody would sign that regardless of what they did. I mean this guy did.
WILHELM: The shocking thing about it was that the guy, Eric Nenno, kind of a, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was an average guy. He seemed like he might be a bit peculiar. But he was, let’s say, a relatively normal guy, goes to work every day, you know. But it was obvious that he had this perversion that had apparently been kept in check for a long time, and part of the evidence, and part of this trial case, was about whether or not he was a situational pedophile or a predatory pedophile. And there was a lot of debate about all of that.
WILHELM: But anyway, as the story goes, and as the court laid it out, is essentially he had come home from work one day, stopped off to get some beer, went home, started drinking the beer, and came outside of his house, and his neighbor next door was apparently refurbishing some furniture, and he was talking to the next door neighbor, and then he heard music down the street. So he walked down the street, and they had a band in the garage, and the father of the victim was playing in the band. And the kids were running around out in the front yard, in some Winnebago that was next to the house or whatnot, and just kind of doing what kids do.
WILHELM: And I guess this girl had apparently come across this Eric Nenno and Eric Nenno asked her, you know, “Hey, what’s with the music?”
WILHELM: And she said, “Oh, my dad’s in the band,” so he proceeded to tell her how he liked music, and maybe he could be in the band, and why didn’t she come home with him and get his guitar with him.
WILHELM: And she did. And of course, got to the house and he attempted to rape her, and during the course of this rape, the way they described it is he held his forearm up near her neck, but was trying to subdue her, and in the process she was killed, and that became a bit of a debate during the jury deliberations, about whether it was intentional, or whether it was potentially just an accident. Not a justifiable accident, but an accident nevertheless, as opposed to an intended consequence. So, I guess, as a result of her being killed, then he decided to hide her body in the attic of his garage.
WILHELM: Now, what was happening in the trial, is that they had the F.B.I. witnesses getting up there, and we were of course getting a lot of exercise going back and forth out of the courtroom, because there were a lot of objections to all of this testimony.
WILHELM: But the gist of it was coming through. The gist was that he had her up there in the attic, and that she had impressions on her back from the joists. The whole concept was he was visiting the body, and whatever, okay.
WILHELM: So even though there were so many objections over that particular testimony, it was like, you get one word, you get another word, it’s like playing “Wheel of Fortune,” and then eventually you figure out what it is they’re trying to get to, but they didn’t want that, obviously, in evidence, because it’s inflammatory.
WILHELM: So anyway, this all happened and then of course this girl turned up missing, and the F.B.I. showed up and the police showed up and they did all the searches in the neighborhood and all that kind of stuff, and they started searching individual houses, one by one, asking people voluntarily to do it. His was one of them by the way, and he let them in, and they didn’t find her, because they didn’t search too well, did they? So then this went on and on for a while, and this Eric Nenno just decided to come and visit the F.B.I. in the command booth, command center thing, vehicle. And I don’t know, they had some discussions, and eventually they asked him something to the effect of, “Who do you think we should be looking for?”
WILHELM: And he said, “Someone like me.”
WILHELM: And it’s amazing that somebody would say this. So eventually he started confessing, and they got some neighbor’s typewriter out, and they started typing this confession, and it was, I can’t remember a lot of the details, but in a nutshell it was a lot of what I just said. And it was amazing to me seeing that in the jury room that anybody would ever sign it one way or the other.
WILHELM: So we started the trial, we listened to all this kind of testimony from the Harris County Sheriff, from the F.B.I., they had these forensic type people give various type testimony, they had these psychological people giving testimony on this predator versus situational pedophile issue. These kinds of things. They tried to introduce a bit of evidence about, I believe, a Newsweek Magazine that talked about child prostitution or pornography in Cambodia or something like that, and they tried to make a big deal about that, that they found these magazines in his - and I remember in the jury room somebody saying something about it, and I said, I read that. It’s Newsweek for God’s sake. It’s not exactly a- if you want to draw a conclusion that he kept this particular one Newsweek, I guess you can, but it was a news article, and it wasn’t like pornography or anything.
WILHELM: So anyway, there was a lot of this and that and the other thing and frankly there wasn’t - It wasn’t a case where there was anything to debate really as far as the guilt was concerned. I mean, he didn’t take the stand, he never made any, “Hey I didn’t really do it,” or denials of any kind. So there wasn’t really, I can’t remember honestly if the trial was one day or two days. I don’t really remember how long it was, but I suspect it was only one day. Maybe it was two days. It might have been two days.
WILHELM: Because they had all these different witnesses coming in. But I remember seeing, he would just sit there and stare straight ahead. He never looked up, he never looked down, he never looked right, left. Stared the whole time.
WILHELM: And you know I would see his family there, and I would see the victim’s family there. And it was just, in my mind, look at this, look at this situation that you’ve created for everybody, I mean for everybody. For the police, for the family, for your family, for us. All of us have to go through this, because one stupid moment.
WILHELM: So anyway, they basically, after the guilt phase, they sent us into the jury room and gave us all the instructions about questions and viewing evidence and all of those kinds of things, which we did. We had all the evidence taken back and looked at in the jury room, but there was not really a serious question as to guilt. Just was not. And so, I think we found him guilty the same afternoon. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was.
WILHELM: The next phase of the trial was the penalty phase, and at first I think it was supposed to happen the next week, or the second week after, or something like that. But one of the jurors had a difficulty, or one of his kids had a car accident, so it got delayed a little bit beyond what it was going to be.
WILHELM: But anyway, we started the penalty phase. Now that’s a more serious thing. I have to admit that in between the guilt phase and the penalty phase, there were occasions when I’d be just driving in my car and I’d think about something or other and that I had not thought about asking the question during the guilt phase because there was never a serious doubt. But -- and not that an answer to any of the particular questions I had would have changed any of that -- but it bothered me that we just didn’t ask the question at all. So I had a bit of a problem with that, and I guess I should go back to how I got-
WILHELM: In the very first, when we first got together, the first instruction was to find a jury foreman and I mean I didn’t nominate myself. Basically, I just got pointed out. “That guy can be the jury foreman.”
CHAMMAH: By who?
MR. CALVIN WILHELM: Well, it was just like a group of people. I think - It was very strange because I think some of these people didn’t want to be a jury foreman. I don’t know why they didn’t. And some of these people had more experience with these juries than I did. I had none, and there were a couple of these people that were on juries in the past. And I had never had any experience. I think it comes down to, and it’s just speculation, but I think it comes down to some of these people just don’t want their name associated with this stuff. They don’t mind being on the jury, but they don’t want to be, because you’re the guy who has to sign the paperwork. You’re the guy whose name is read out in court, and they just don’t want it. So I think there might be some apprehension from that point of view, and I was too stupid to know any different at the time.
WILHELM: So I said, I’ll be a foreman, what’s involved in being a foreman, anyway?
WILHELM: So anyway we did all the guilt phase, and like I said it was a fairly straightforward process. No doubt about it, no agonization, Did he really do it? Let’s debate what happened on Thursday night versus what happened on Friday night. Who was where and when?
WILHELM: We didn’t have any of those issues. It was basically, we had a guy that admitted to doing something and it was really a matter of, what are we going to do with this guy, in a nutshell, because clearly it wasn’t going to - he’s not going to go free. Anyway, the penalty phase was obviously more difficult than the –
WILHELM: Now, there’s a lot of people that say, “Why is it so difficult? The guy killed an eight year-old daughter.”
WILHELM: Well, we had some people on the jury that said that: Hey, what’s the big deal?
WILHELM: I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but some people were very cavalier about what’s involved, and I don’t know if it’s psychological, that they just want to dismiss the fact of the purpose that they’re actually there for, or defuse or deflect. Now, we had guys on the jury who said, “I’m not here to pick death or not death. I’m here to answer a couple questions.”
WILHELM: I said, What do you mean you’re here to answer a couple questions? What do you think those couple of questions are going to result in? You don’t go that far?
WILHELM: “Oh no, I’m just here to answer a couple questions.”
WILHELM: So you have people that try to defuse the situation and the importance of the situation, and we got into that a little bit when we started deliberating, and I had to, I guess as a foreman or just as a one of the members of the jury, we went straight into the deliberations, and I started hearing stuff about lunch and golfing and “I have a hair appointment with my girlfriend.”
WILHELM: I started hearing this stuff, and it was a lot of discussion about having a vote, and I said, Okay, well why don’t you all have a vote. Whatever you vote for, vote me on the other side.
WILHELM: “What do you mean?”
WILHELM: I said, Well I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. You all can go to lunch, play golf, or whatever you want to do, but I’m not going to do it. So if you want to answer the questions this way or that way, however you answer them, just put me down on the other side.
WILHELM: So they didn’t like that, obviously. There were some people who were annoyed. I just felt like there was a little too much of a cavalier attitude with the whole thing. I mean, I understand the fact that in this particular case, this guy was guilty. There was nothing -- and he did a heinous thing. This was an eight year-old girl. There’s no question about the deserving nature of it all, but nevertheless, whether you like it or not, it’s a human life, and you can’t just take it so cavalierly.
WILHELM: So anyway, I took that position, and I took that position because of the feelings I had from the guilt trial, where we didn’t really examine certain nuances that I believe, not necessarily to be germane or potentially overturning our decision, but they were bothersome to me.
WILHELM: So I wasn’t going to let that happen this time. Clearly, I wasn’t going to let that happen. And I antagonized a number of the jurors with this whole, you know, let’s look at every angle of this thing, let’s decide. As a matter of fact, the issue of society was one that got a lot of people angry.
WILHELM: I had this one woman, well, when I said, put me down for the other side, and the question came up, why are you going to do that?
WILHELM: I said, well, because I want to make sure we examine all the evidence.
WILHELM: A woman picked up a picture of the girl and just threw it at me. She said, “There’s all the evidence you need.”
WILHELM: That’s what she said. And I said, I understand that, but we’re here to answer two questions, and we’re going to answer them after we consider all the facts, and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But that’s the way it’s going to be. And so I took a devil’s advocate position, really. I didn’t believe a lot of this, but I was taking a devil’s advocate position, and I said, Look, you know, what about this, what about that, what about that.
WILHELM: Before you knew it, I had like four or five of the jurors going the other way. They were actually - Then I started feeling a little bit weird the other way. Hold your horses here, let’s not get carried away. But we had, I don’t remember all the different people on the jury, but we had men and women, an older woman, a couple of younger women. It was a mixed crowd from around Harris County. But anyway, I got uncomfortable in this devil’s advocate position, because people were actually coming on to that position.
WILHELM: So if I remember the questions right, the questions are, Does this person pose a continuing danger to society? Or something like that. And the question is yes or no. And then the second question is, Are there any mitigating circumstances? And the question is yes or no. I don’t know what happens if there are mitigating circumstances, give them a list, or what, but -
WILHELM: So anyway, we started off on the first question, and that’s what got me a little riled up with the StandDown notice [http://standdown.typepad.com/weblog/2008/10/eric-nenno-and-texas-clemency.html], because I read that article, and they specifically said the jury got it wrong, and the Circuit Court of Appeals, or whoever it was, didn’t take the opportunity to correct the error, and the fundamental assertion was that the jury did not consider the issue of society, okay?
WILHELM: Now that’s exactly what we considered, almost exclusively. I considered it, and it’s another case of me aggravating my fellow jury guys. They weren’t particularly excited about my theorization on this society issue, but the first question, a continuing danger to society, my theory was, as wild as it might sound to the average guy, was, this guy has just been convicted of capital murder, okay? Where is a capital murderer going? He’s going to prison, and who is in that prison? A bunch of guys. Not kids, but guys, adult men.
WILHELM: Now, can it be construed that that is his society, and if that’s his society, and his crime is the rape and murder of an eight year-old girl, isn’t it possible that you could consider the fact that he’s not a danger to society if he’s in prison?
WILHELM: That was the fundamental - we had this discussion, a very elaborate discussion, and I even wrote, because we got into the debate about what is a society anyway? Is it a micro-society, is it society as a whole? Is it the state of Texas or the city of Houston? Is it Harris County or it is the world? What is society? What does that mean, the word? We all can have a different view of what a society is. It could be your class, it could be your neighborhood. How small or how big is the society we’re talking about? So I wrote out a note to the judge. What is the legal definition of society?
WILHELM: Sent it out there. I got a written response that said it is whatever you decide it to be. That was the answer, so I said, then it’s up to us to decide what his society is. So we debated this issue, debated this issue. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, we all agreed, finally, including myself, that we couldn’t be a hundred percent absolutely certain that he would be excluded from the wider world in perpetuity. He could escape, he could be paroled, there could be some technicality that is found later on, there could be some pardon from the president or the governor, or there could be any number of perpetual possibilities that he might be released to the general population as a whole. This long elaborate discussion eventually yielded that.
WILHELM: And I was satisfied that we examined that thoroughly enough to say unless you can a hundred percent guarantee that this person will be away from this particular segment of society that he had a predilection towards, then he would have to be a continuing menace, basically.
WILHELM: We got into the debate about situational versus predatory, and at the end of the day we sort of decided it doesn’t matter. Situational, predatory, it doesn’t matter, because the situation is always going to come, and if you’re predatory you’re going to make it come, so the fact is is that this is unfortunately, you might say it’s a psychological disease, being a pedophile. It’s obviously not a normal trait, I would think, most people have. So you could get into the debate about whether or not this person is of sound mind. We didn’t get into that that much, but we did ultimately agree that he was a continuing danger to society, and there were clearly no mitigating circumstances.
WILHELM: Now, unfortunately, it took us, I think we got into the jury room around ten o’clock in the morning and we hadn’t finished until five, and then they sequestered us. They took us to some sequester hotel, downtown Houston some place, and it was very boring. No televisions, no radios, no T.V.s, no nothing. You just sit there. It’s a pretty boring lifestyle. You want to string dinner out as long as you can, you know, because it’s like really boring. But anyway we ended up staying - I don’t know if we spent one extra day or two extra days doing that.
WILHELM: I don’t remember exactly, but what we didn’t know at the time was that there was some hubbub in the news about the fact that we didn’t immediately come back with these answers, and that the speculation they were having was these guys are going to let him go. These guys are going to let him off the hook, so to speak. There was all this going on at the time, and obviously we didn’t let him off the hook, but I remember, with a couple of these different guys, with, “I’m not here to sentence anybody to death, I’m just here to answer a couple of questions,” this kind of stuff.
WILHELM: I said, Look, if we don’t go through this stuff, if we’re not comfortable with it, it’s just like these StandDown guys coming up with this, “They didn’t consider the society” thing. You’re going to have to consider that yourself. You’re going to be sitting in your easy chair one night, nine o’clock news is going to come on or whatever. They’re going to have some thing about this guy getting executed. You’re going to be going, “Hey, you know what? We should have asked that question. How come we didn’t answer that question.”
WILHELM: I said, So don’t give me any of this, you’re not here for whatever you think you’re not here for, because you’re here for that. I said, There’s only twelve guys sitting around here that have anything to say about whether this guy gets the death penalty or not. That’s it, and you’re one of them, so whether you think, whatever you want to rationalize in your head, you can do that, but you’re just fooling yourself.
WILHELM: So, we obviously got to the second, I think it was the second day, and it was lunchtime I think, and the bailiff had just come in telling us we were going to go to lunch. We said, “No, we’ve got the answer.”
WILHELM: So he went back out, we had to push the button, we had to go through the rigmarole. Then he comes in and he says, “Okay it will be about thirty minutes. We have to go get the guy, we have to get these guys, we have to notify the families and all these different people, prosecutors and what have you.”
WILHELM: So they did, so we just sat back there for about a half hour or so after having lunch I believe it was. They called us in there, and it was a very tense situation, right? I wasn’t surprised by that, but it was a very packed courtroom. You had all these Harris County police and Sheriff’s Department. You had the F.B.I. guys, families were all there, and the news media were there, and I was a little bit surprised it was that tense, but it was very tense. You could sense it, very tense. I think the thinking was, “These guys took too long to decide a simple thing like this. We don’t what’s going to happen here. We don’t know what the answer is.”
WILHELM: So when we walked out into the courtroom, it was very tense, so we went in there and of course we turned in our paperwork and they read it all out, you know, and then of course they polled the jury, to see if they anyone wanted to back out of their decision. Of course, because I was the only one holding these people back it was like, what’s the logic of that? Anyway, most of these guys were aggravated they missed their golf game.
WILHELM: Anyway, then we went back into the jury room, and of course the judge was the first one that wanted to go back, have a pow-wow about what was going on. I guess they have a sort of semi-professional interest in how the hell juries think, how they act. Some of them act interesting and some of them don’t act so interesting, I guess. I don’t know how interesting we were, but we had a very straightforward case. Maybe we made a federal case out of a straightforward case, but I feel comfortable that we did it, the way we did it. I feel very comfortable, and that’s what I told some of these guys, Look, I’m not in it for Eric Nenno or you or anybody else. I’m in it for me. I want to make sure I feel comfortable, because I’m not going to sit in my easy chair, find out this guy is getting executed, and I had some apprehension about it. Don’t want it, I already felt that way during the first, guilt phase of the trial, and I don’t want to feel that way ten years from now or seven years from now or whatever it is.
WILHELM: So we ended up talking to the attorneys, the prosecutors. The defense attorneys didn’t come in. Then we talked to the family, so talked to the father of the girl for a little while.
CHAMMAH: As a group, or you individually?
WILHELM: Well, I individually talked to him, more than anybody else. I mean he did come into the jury room, but this guy, Buddy Benton, he was in bad shape. He had a job and he lost his job. I’m sure they kept him on as long as they could, but he was distraught by it all. I mean, I can understand why he was distraught, but he was a broken person in my view. What I saw was he was just a broken guy, and he didn’t know what to do with himself.
WILHELM: And you know what I sort of told him at the time was, Look, this is over now. Not for you, but this part is over, and you have other kids. You have other family to worry about. You’ve got to get a hold of yourself. This part is over. Everything’s been done.
WILHELM: And I don’t know whatever happened to the guy, personally, but it was worrisome, his psychological state. He was not in good condition in my mind, and I saw the grandmother there every day, and it was just terrible. A very traumatic event, and it’s traumatic for everybody. Because not two or three days go by that I don’t think about that girl. This was fifteen years ago. Not two or three days go by. I could be riding in an armored vehicle in Kabul or in Jalalabad, and she’ll just come into my head.
WILHELM: So it’s a very traumatic event to be involved in something like this, and like I said this was a straightforward case, and it must be terribly agonizing to other people that have not straightforward cases to have to deal with and decide, it’s not easy at all.
WILHELM: And when I left, I did go out and talked to the defense attorneys that were out there. You said you might have talked to them. I can’t remember their names, but I said, I’m sorry it took so long for us to do this.
WILHELM: The guy said, “Look, you did exactly the way you should do it. You examined every bit of evidence. It’s recorded what evidence you examined. You didn’t eat any Twinkies during lunch, and basically you don’t need to worry about it at all. If anybody deserves it, this guy deserves it.”
WILHELM: And that was the defense attorney. “If anybody deserves it, this guy deserves it.” He said, “You’ve done a lot to make sure there’s not a successful appeal by going through the process.”
WILHELM: Now if we did the lunch thing, if we did the “I’ve got to go to a hair appointment” thing, the “I’ve got to go golfing” thing, maybe there would have been more of a potential for some kind of appeal of some sort, but this was just such an open and shut situation it’s hard to imagine how the result would be any different one way or another, whether or not there would be an appeal, so.
Calvin Wilhelm, an engineering consultant who has worked on projects around the world, served as the jury foreman in Eric Nenno’s capital murder trial in Houston, Harris County, Texas in 1996. The jury sentenced Eric Nenno to the death penalty and he was executed in Huntsville on October 28, 2008. In Video 1, after offering a brief overview of his educational background, work history, and eventual residence in Houston, in 1992, Mr. Wilhelm describes his experience as the jury foreman for Mr. Nenno’s trial, including the jury selection process, the guilt/innocence phase of the trial, the penalty phase of the trial, and the announcement of the sentence in court. In Video 2, Mr. Wilhelm discusses his thoughts on the purpose and value of the death penalty; his reactions to a commentary raising questions about the jury’s vote on Nenno’s “continuing threat to society” posted at the The StandDown Texas Project blog on the day of Nenno’s execution; his perceptions of growing crime and insecurity in the United States since the 1960s and in comparison to other places he’s lived; and further thoughts on jury selection, trial testimony, procedures and discussions within the jury room, and the aftermath of the trial. This interview took place on August 17, 2011 in Overland Park, Kansas, where Mr. Wilhelm now lives.
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Calvin WilhelmRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Maurice ChammahRole: Interviewer
Emily SmithRole: Videographer
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