His career as a criminal lawyer spans three decades so it’s fair to say Chris Nyst has heard some stories and met some characters in his time. In this piece for ORM, he shares his fascinating insights into stories of redemption…
There is no more powerful human narrative than the story of redemption, the assurance that no matter what evil we have done we can atone, strive to be better and ultimately find forgiveness. Not everyone believes in true redemption. But, like the good preacher, a good lawyer has to believe we all can hope to one day be delivered from our sins.
Not so long ago, I'm aimlessly following my wife around a weekend flea market, trying to look interested in the recycled junk she keeps insisting would improve the ambiance of our home, when a guy who looks just like another ordinary everyday slob steps up to me and asks “Don’t you remember me?”
What can I say? He’s around 45 years old, an average-looking John Citizen with a bad comb-over and expanding waistline, and he bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone I ever knew.
"Sure,” I say. “Of course I do.”
How could I not? When I last saw him, 25 years earlier, he was a wild young savage in a whole heap of trouble. He and his mates had loaded up on dope and booze, went for a joy ride, one thing had led to another, and someone wound up dead. He swore it was an accident, and for about two minutes it was all over the news, before he eventually and inevitably dealt down to manslaughter, and was carted off to gaol. His parents cried. The dead boy’s parents cried. It was an awful, tragic time.
But now my erstwhile client looked positively happy to see me, grinning proudly as he introduced the cute kid holding tight onto his hand. Life was good for him these days, he told me, he had settled down, got married, had some kids. He was in hardware now, flicked me his business card, and suggested I come see him if I ever needed doorknobs.
As he walked away with his little girl cuddling up to him I couldn't help but bring to mind the curious case of Arthur J. Hutchins. Like my former client, Arthur was a wayward kid who once kicked up a heap of dust, and caused a lot of heartache.
In 1928, in Glendale California, nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from his single mother's house without a trace. When police went hunting for the missing boy, they eventually found Arthur, then an itinerant juvenile, sleeping rough and on the lam.
But he was a big fan of Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix, so when he heard a kindly lady in California was desperate to find her long lost little boy, Arthur was happy to oblige, hoping he might get to Hollywood to meet his cowboy idol. He told police he was the missing Walter Collins whereupon, in a burst of publicity, the Los Angeles Police Department shipped him off to California, where they proudly re-united the grieving mother and her child.
When Christine Collins insisted the boy was not her missing son, police dismissed her as emotionally distraught. Uncertain, and under pressure, she took the boy home with her anyway. But when she returned Arthur three weeks later, the LAPD accused her of shirking her duty as a mother. And when she publicly embarrassed them with claims they had reunited her with the wrong child, they had her committed to an insane asylum.
Arthur Hutchins caused a lot of trouble before his masquerade was finally uncovered. He upset a lot of people, not least of all the Police Department, and for his sins he copped two years in the Iowa State Training School for Boys.
He would later seek redemption, publicly apologising to poor Mrs Collins, and to the State of California. And it seems eventually he may have found it.
When Arthur J Hutchins died of a blood clot in 1954 at the age of 38, he left behind a grieving wife and a young daughter, Carol. In 2008, Carol Hutchins, by then an old lady, remembered her loving father fondly. "In my mind," she was reported as saying, "My dad could do no wrong."
I guess none of us could hope to do much better than that.
People sometimes do some monstrous things. That doesn't make them monsters. As a lawyer I have to believe even the very worst of us is capable of true redemption.
In his 1959 memoir of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War 2, Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote of a young Austrian doctor who became known as “the mass murderer of Steinhol”. When the Nazis implemented their so-called euthanasia program, the doctor was in charge of administering it at the Steinhol Mental Hospital in Vienna, and was singularly fanatical and efficient in ensuring no psychosis sufferer ever escaped execution in the gas chambers. After the war ended, he was imprisoned by the Russians in one of the isolation cells at Steinhol, and later shipped off to the gulags of Siberia, and eventually to the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
Years after the war, Frankl treated a former diplomat who had been imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain, and had met the former mass murderer of Steinhol. The diplomat reported the murderous doctor had died in a Soviet prison at the age of forty. His death was unremarkable, but his life was not. Before he died, the diplomat reported, the young doctor had undergone a profound personal reformation. He had striven to atone for his horrendous misdeeds, becoming a selfless and supportive comrade to his fellow inmates in the gulags, showing them constant and much-needed kindness and solace, and reportedly living up to “the highest conceivable moral standard.”
We all do bad things in our lives, some much worse than others. But likewise, whatever our sins, we all have the capacity for redemption, if we choose it, whether we’re a mass murderer, a wild young savage, or just a very naughty boy.