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A Daughter’s Quest to Free Her Father’s Killer

A Daughter’s Quest to Free Her Father’s Killer

Under Texas’s so-called law of parties, White was liable for Kaim’s death whether he pulled the trigger or waited in the getaway car; his punishment may have been the same either way. White told me he suspects that Blocker evaded arrest by fleeing back to Jamaica. Kitchen, though, found the police’s failure to track down Blocker infuriating. “Is Joseff Deon White serving a 65 year sentence for a crime he only assisted in???” she wrote on a questionnaire shortly before their first encounter. Only White knows for sure whether he had an accomplice and, if he did, what role each of them played in the crime. During our lunch, Kitchen pressed gingerly for details. “So did you and Blocker share the money?” she asked White.

“Yes,” White said. “He gave me some money.”

“What do you mean ‘He gave you’? Didn’t you get the wallet?” Whoever got the wallet was presumably the one who’d robbed and shot her father.

“I didn’t get the wallet,” White said, shaking his head. “I remember us being at the store. After he came back to the car, we left, and we went somewhere on the Southwest side. I think it was a Stop-N-Go. Blocker was giving me some money.”

“So it was Blocker who got out of the car?” I asked. “Who killed Katie’s dad? Was it you or Blocker?”

“That’s the problem I have,” White said. “I keep seeing different stuff. See what I’m saying? I’m trying to fit in what’s missing.”

Even within a single family, people grieve in different ways, and the legal procedures that allow for mercy sometimes expose the fault lines. “Meeting with a Killer,” a Court TV documentary from 2001 that has become a touchstone for victim-offender dialogues, follows the mother and daughter of Cathy O’Daniel, a Houston woman who was raped and shot to death, in 1986, as they prepare to visit one of her two assailants in prison. During the meeting, the assailant—who raped O’Daniel but wasn’t the shooter—vows to change his life, and afterward both women give him a hug. Later, though, as Slate reported, O’Daniel’s daughter told the filmmaker that she regretted the embrace, and O’Daniel’s father, who’d declined to participate in the mediation, said that he couldn’t bear to watch the tape. More recently, two sons of Robert F. Kennedy—Robert, Jr., and Douglas—have supported the release of Sirhan Sirhan, who was recommended for parole after serving more than five decades in prison for assassinating their father. “I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love,” Douglas said last year, at a parole hearing. Kennedy’s widow and six of his other children have spoken out against Sirhan’s release, and, in a decision last week, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, sided with them.

Although Kitchen’s family members didn’t oppose White’s parole, some have found her friendship with him discomfiting. Kitchen’s daughter, K. C. Coats, a Realtor who lives in Austin, attributed her mother’s affection for White to her “childlike, innocent quality,” which she described with loving skepticism. “Forgiveness can sometimes really require distance,” Coats said, “because it allows you to accept someone for who they are, and they’re over there.” She added, “My mother hasn’t fully let the reality of what happened wash over her. She could have kept Joseff at an arm’s length, and it all would have been just as good.” Ellen Benninghoven shares her sister’s interest in criminal-justice reform. Before the pandemic, she volunteered weekly with a Houston-based restorative-justice program called Bridges to Life, which, according to its Web site, leads incarcerated people through a curriculum “centered on responsibility, repentance, and restitution.” But Benninghoven has never wanted to meet White, in part because she never got the sense from Kitchen that he was truly remorseful.

“Most of these guys, when they go through this program, they realize what they’ve done, and they want to say, ‘I regret it,’ ” Benninghoven told me one night at her house. She and Kitchen were in the living room, eating mint gelato from small glass bowls and finishing a game of Rummikub. A retired real-estate agent with a chic white pixie cut, Benninghoven has a more pragmatic air than her sister. “If Joseff had said, you know, ‘I’d been on drugs that night, and I really regret what I did,’ it’s not like he would ever have been my good friend, but I would sort of want to keep up with him.” Benninghoven turned to Kitchen. “But when he couldn’t say those words? And you didn’t need them?”

“I didn’t want him to ever have to feel he had to lie to me,” Kitchen replied.

“What would he have lied to you about?” Benninghoven asked.

“Maybe he’d feel he had to say he was sorry, even if he didn’t mean it.”

“Well, whatever the reason was, you didn’t want to hear that he was sorry.”

“But he did tell me stuff,” Kitchen said. Before my visit, she had mailed me copies of documents from the mediation process, including a debriefing questionnaire that she and White had completed after their meeting. I retrieved it from my backpack. White’s handwriting was faint and cramped, but on the back of the form Kitchen had rewritten some of his answers in cursive.

“Unfortunately, positive thinking is not improving this experience.”
Cartoon by Zoe Si

“The question is ‘How do you feel right now?’ ” I read aloud. Then Kitchen read White’s answer: “I’ve been sorry, but now I’m even more sorry. I feel even worse for her father’s life being taken, because she and her father and family are good people.’ ”

“So he did say he was sorry,” Benninghoven said, a bit abashed.

“I feel he was doing the best he could,” Kitchen said. When discussing White, she on occasion slipped into an unintentionally condescending tone. Before I’d met White, she had told me that I might not be able to understand him well, because he “doesn’t have great enunciation.” Now, to Benninghoven, she said, “We’re not all articulate. We’re not all educated in a way that we can express our feelings or be smooth.” Then she asked what I thought.

I told Kitchen that, as a child, I had found it comforting to know that my father’s killer hadn’t targeted him in particular—that the murder was, to some extent, a “random act,” as I’d heard her call White’s crime. Like Benninghoven, though, I chafed at Kitchen’s insistence on ignoring the question of White’s responsibility. In her narrative, the murder was a terrible accident, and White, because of systemic injustices, had been as much a victim as her father. I admired that her mission on White’s behalf was an attempt to live up to her progressive ideals. But I wondered whether she had truly let go of what the mediators had called her “coping story.” Did she accept that White may well have been the one who killed her dad, and that the crime may not have been an accident?

Kitchen stood up, paced for a few moments, and then settled on a beige armchair on the other side of the room. She started crying. “Even when I think about it right now, I’m just so sad that somebody’s life would be in such a place that they would do that,” she said.

I replied that she seemed plagued by an unconventional kind of survivor’s guilt, stemming not from her father’s fate but from White’s.

She said again how sorry she felt for people desperate enough to turn to crime. “Maybe in a way it’s almost disrespectful,” she added. “I don’t even give them enough credit that they can be held accountable.”

Kitchen began giving talks about her quest to free White even before his release. “I am grateful that only one person’s life was lost that night in 1991,” she likes to say. She and Jamal Joseph, a formerly incarcerated screenwriter who now teaches at Columbia, have discussed the possibility of a film adaptation of her story. Joseph, who is Black, told me, “I hadn’t heard a story like this before, with someone saying, you know, ‘Let me be active in forgiveness and help this person regain their life.’ ” Kitchen knows that some people might dismiss her as a “white savior,” or as a rich lady bent on centering her own racial and political awakening. “I don’t know what her motive is for publicizing her story,” her oldest sister, who asked that I not use her name, told me, adding, “It sort of seems like she might want credit for it, or something.” Kitchen said that she hopes to serve as a model: “People always say, ‘How can you sit across from the man who did that to your family?’ I want them not to say that anymore.”

At her sister’s house, Kitchen had worried that my own unresolved feelings about my father’s killer might affect how I portrayed her. “When you do decide to write what you write, I hope it will be you as the educated adult, as opposed to the child who has lost his dad,” she told me. When I relayed Kitchen’s story to Sujatha Baliga, the restorative-justice advocate, she acknowledged that Kitchen’s lack of interest in White’s culpability was uncommon. Baliga was sexually abused by her late father, and she is working on a book about how she came to forgive him. But she said it’s a mistake to presume that survivors should feel a certain way. “In my line of work, I have to constantly suspend the need for other people to have my needs,” she told me. Indeed, as I reported on Kitchen’s story, I grew less frustrated by the evasive manner in which she and White discussed the murder. It moved me that each seemed attuned to what the other needed from their unusual friendship.

White clearly coöperated with this piece largely out of obligation to Kitchen. “Whatever she asks me to do, if I have time for it, I’ll make time for it, because I feel like I owe her so much,” he told me. Without Kitchen as an intermediary, though, White was hard to get in touch with. He works two full-time jobs, as an electrician by day, with his uncle, and as a security guard at night. After weeks of trying, I reached him one evening in October, over FaceTime, while he was working a shift in the parking lot of a hookah lounge in downtown Houston. A silver security badge gleamed against the breast of his black shirt. I thought that without Kitchen present White might share more details about the night of the crime, or even admit to the murder. Instead, to my surprise, he told me the same thing that he’d told the police the morning after his arrest: he’d been in the car outside Kaim’s house, but it was Blocker who’d robbed and shot him. “I wasn’t no killer, man,” White said.

He explained that he didn’t feel he’d had any power to tell his side of the story at the trial. Kurt Wentz, his lawyer, had chosen not to put him on the stand. “It was me, as a young Black boy, young Black man, whatever you want to call it, against the system,” White said. I asked why he hadn’t told any of this to Kitchen at lunch—and why, at the ceremony for Carol Vance parolees, in 2017, he’d introduced himself as someone who’d “killed a man.” White brought up Toastmasters, a public-speaking program that he’d completed before his release from prison. “One of the things you learn is knowing your audience,” he said. “When you do speeches, you have to reach people and touch them the way you feel like they can be touched. To be honest, don’t nobody wanna hear, ‘O.K., I’m in prison, and she got me out, but really I ain’t the one who did it.’ People want to hear a story, to motivate them, to know that things get better.”

His comment reminded me of an entry in Kitchen’s journal, from 2018, after she and White gave a talk at the Darrington Unit. Before it began, she pulled White aside to ask if he worried that their story might sound like “bragging to folks who were stuck inside prison.” White reassured her. “He told me that many times when one is inside one thinks about taking one’s life. It all seems so hopeless about ever getting out. He said our story will give them Hope. The fact that anything can happen to you.” ♦