A chronicle of depravity
BACKSTORY | How one murder revealed the troubled heart of a nation
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The murder of an off-duty state trooper in rural Mississippi didn’t make national headlines. But it caught Kim Henderson’s attention. That’s partly because law enforcement runs in her family, and it was easy to see herself in the trooper’s widow. But also because it was so indicative of the larger trend of violent crime plaguing the United States. Statistics are hard to connect with. That’s why the stories behind each tally in the nation’s murder rate are so important. You can read about this one in “Depraved hearts,” in this issue.
Trooper Troy Morris’ murder was part of a larger trend. You could have picked any case to tell that story. What drew you to this one? I couldn’t get over the contrast. Here was Troy, a trooper burning the midnight oil on a second job, and here were these three young men, on the prowl at 4 a.m. Why didn’t they have something to wake up for the next day? The district attorney and others let me know that kind of thinking is naive, but I was still struck by it.
You’ve been following the Morris case for a while, so you knew the basics before you started reporting. What was the most surprising thing you learned as you dug into the details? Really two things. I was surprised to learn the shooter was wanted in connection to another murder when he killed Troy. He was moving around pretty freely, pretty openly. How does that happen? And then there’s the conviction. To see a word like “depraved” taking up space in case files and news articles surprised me. One law professor I interviewed kept telling me it’s throwback terminology my readers wouldn’t be interested in. I hope he was wrong.
One statistic in your story jumped out at me: In 2021, every birth in Jefferson County was to an unwed mother. How does that affect the community? Ironically, burglar bars cover the Department of Human Services office, which says a lot about conditions there. A pastor told me kids are basically raising themselves “like wild deer,” a thought echoed by the high school principal. To get perspective, I spoke to Devon Westhill of the Center for Equal Opportunity. He’s black and grew up in the South with a single mother. He told me there’s often a connection between crime and children who grow up without “robust” parental love, because it’s hard for them to see value in the lives of others if they don’t feel valued themselves. Thankfully, the pastor I mentioned understands this and is doing something to make a difference in Jefferson County. He says he can’t reach everybody, but maybe he can reach one.
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