Mass-murder suspect Patrick Crusius was arraigned in an El Paso state district court on Oct. 10, 2019. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

“But what about Hitler?”

People often ask this when I tell them I’m totally against the death penalty.

For the past year, El Pasoans who oppose capital punishment have been asking, “But  what about Patrick Crusius?” He is the man accused of being the white-supremacist mass murderer at the Walmart last Aug. 3. He is the Adolph Hitler of the border. 

Our local “El Paso Strong” politicians say that Crusius drove 600 miles to this community expressly because we’re a Mexican city, a brown place he could not stand. He wasn’t mentally ill, the leaders say – he was a homicidal racist, so don’t use mental illness to explain his evil. Facebook and other social media are full of calls for his death by lethal injection. 

But what if Hitler’s brother had a Latinx girlfriend from El Paso? 

Patrick Crusius’ brother does  — or did, on the day that the people at Walmart were shot. A relative of the girlfriend called the media with the tip. Perusing the internet, I was surprised to find that the Crusius family is not a rightwing family. Patrick seemed like a black sheep. His siblings attended and did well at an elite university. Patrick meanwhile, could barely stay in community college. In an essay his brother wrote in 2016, he noted that Patrick was a recluse who spent hours a day in his room, online. 

Patrick’s nice brother’s nice girlfriend grew up in a nice part of El Paso and went out of town to that nice university, where she fell in love — with a good Crusius. She has a Mexican-American mom from El Paso, and an Anglo dad whose family has been in El Paso for decades. Dad has a prestigious job in the local criminal justice system. I found him in his office a few months ago and he begged me not to identify the family. “We’re afraid that people in El Paso will be so angry that they’ll hurt us,” he said. 

He said he had no idea why Patrick Crusius came to El Paso. I wrote to Crusius at the Downtown jail to ask. He didn’t respond. Nor did his family.   

Did he come here, maybe, not just because he was a white supremacist but also because he had issues with his brother? Issues batting and buzzing madly in his head? Was he — is he — a mentally ill white supremacist?   

The importance of mitigation investigation

When the state wants to put someone to death, the defendant is constitutionally entitled to a stunningly profound inquiry into the entire history of his or her life. It’s called a “mitigation investigation.” I know this because for 10 years I worked as a mitigation investigator, including on cases in El Paso. The work aims to learn anything and everything about the person’s life that might sway a prosecutor, judge or jury to choose a life sentence for a defendant instead of death. 

Learning that someone is intellectually disabled is an automatic mitigator against capital punishment. So are certain kinds of mental illness. Other parts of a life history are more subtle but equally important. Every murderer was once somebody’s little boy or girl. Was that child abused? Brain damaged from malnutrition, exposure to parents’ drugs, lead emissions in the dirt or toxics in the air? Did the child ask for help from some adult? Did the adult refuse? Or get sick? Move away? Die? 

Can someone responsible for sentencing the murderer say, “There but for fortune go I, a flawed but human person — or my sister or my brother or child”? Mitigation investigation tries to author a biography to inspire community mercy.

Mitigation investigation is exacting, intimate and often very effective. (Of the cases I’ve done in El Paso, for instance, most ended up being downgraded from death, to life in prison without parole.)  

The work is done via countless, repetitive visits: with the defendant in the jail cell; with scores of siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, old army buddies, cousins, employers, friends. It’s all done in person and with hard traveling: I would have been fired if I’d ever used the phone. 

I have lain in bed with a client’s ex-girlfriend and only then did she tell me that the defendant couldn’t tell the difference between a man’s shirt and a woman’s blouse and would put hers on by mistake — and that memory I noted as evidence of what turned out to be an IQ of only 68. 

I have wept with sisters recalling the accused murderer being sexually abused by a mother’s drunken boyfriend and locked in closets. I have sat with macho defendants, blue-skinned with years of gang tattoos, as they’ve haltingly recalled earlier years when they tried so hard to escape the trouble, but the savior football coach suffered a fatal heart attack. 

Patrick Crusius’ defense team still hasn’t been able to send in the mitigation investigators. COVID-19 has made it impossible for them to visit jail cells, knock on people’s doors and confide with them in bedrooms. Even so, El Paso federal judge David Guaderrama ruled on Tuesday that federal prosecutors may meet on Thursday to decide, without meaningful mitigation information, if they will seek the death penalty for Crusius. 

If they do and he is eventually sentenced to death row, cracker-jack attorneys will spend decades keeping him alive as they write appeals arguing that his rights were violated. Their arguments will likely prevail. Meanwhile, the good brother’s girlfriend’s good El Paso family will have been outed at trial. Subsequently they will suffer the conflict of the damned, living in a community where their people died, and where another of their people awaits execution.

El Paso can choose another way

Would it not be better — El Paso Truly Strong — for us, right now, to just reject more killing? We are deep into an epoch of yearning for smart justice, transformative justice, and the abolition of stupidity, sadism, vengeance and supremacy when it comes to law enforcement. 

In other communities, victims of the current national hatred have morally refused the eye for the eye. In Charleston, S.C. in 2015, nine Black churchgoers were slaughtered by young white supremacist Dylann Roof. The pastor of the church said the congregation did not want to see the murderer sentenced to death (he was sentenced anyway, and the decision is now on appeal). 

In 2018, 11 Jews praying at a synagogue in Pittsburgh – including my cousin Mark’s best friend — were murdered, allegedly by an armed anti-Semite who blamed Jews for helping Central American refugees. The rabbi of one of the victimized congregations has condemned the use of the death penalty against the murderer. 

El Paso can choose membership in this moral American pantheon. We’ve made a start. 

In a pastoral letter in October, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz asked that Crusius be spared from execution. “Justice is certainly required,” Seitz wrote. “But the cycle of hate, blood and vengeance on the border must meet its end. While the scales of justice may seem to tilt in favor of the necessity of lethal retribution, God offers us yet another chance to choose life.” 

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso rejects the death penalty, in general and for Crusius. “In addition to moral objections, El Pasoans shouldn’t have to continue suffering from this heinous act,” he wrote to El Paso Matters. “A death penalty prosecution will take years and cost millions of taxpayer dollars, adding further insult to injury.”

Texas state Rep. Joe Moody, who represents part of El Paso, describes feeling the “What about Hitler?” twinge despite his animus to the death penalty. “I have to admit that as a brown man in a brown city where racial hatred was distilled down into the bullets that took 23 innocent lives last year, a righteous anger in me feels Crusius should die,” Moody wrote to El Paso Matters. 

“But there’s another voice sitting right beside that rage, one quietly telling me that killing for revenge is a hollow gesture. It’s not about him; it’s about us. After grieving, we’re now healing, and another killing does nothing to help make us whole. 

“The justice I want doesn’t lie in what happens to Crusius, but in what happens within my heart and the hearts of my fellow El Pasoans. We’re better than the same violence he brought to our doorstep.”

Cover photo: Mass-murder suspect Patrick Crusius was arraigned in an El Paso state district court on Oct. 10, 2019. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Debbie Nathan is a longtime freelance journalist specializing in the US-Mexico border, race, and sexual politics.