Long after a murder leaves the front page, it lingers in a kitchen grown quiet, or when dialing a phone forever unanswered, when private jokes stay private, and you say “all right” when people ask, but your seders aren’t the same, and Christmas isn’t Christmas, for mourners all share the same pew in pre-dawn sleeplessness.
This is a Jewish story, or rather it ends up a Jewish story, but there won’t be any inspirational payoff at the end. The nicest part is prelude: 1960s Ohio, a Christian home, a beautiful girl, Margaret “Peggy” Park. She loved the outdoors, took a memorable camping trip to Canada and thrilled to wolves howling in the distant wild.
In 1981, after college, she moved to Florida, getting a job with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a park ranger,” Peggy told the St. Petersburg Times in the early 1980s. “It will never be a job.”
On the night of Dec. 13, 1984, Martin Grossman, 19, and Thayne Taylor, 17, came to the woods in Pinellas County where Park, 26, patrolled.
Grossman, an ex-con, was violating his parole several ways to Sunday by possessing and shooting a stolen gun, and by leaving Pasco County, where he lived and was confined by his parole.
Park thought the teens and their van were suspicious. She approached; Grossman resisted. She called for help on her police radio. Grossman, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, jumped Park, 5-foot-5, 115 pounds, breaking her fingers as she reached for her own gun. As if Grossman wasn’t big enough, the other teen, Taylor, joined in until she kicked him in the groin. Grossman relentlessly beat her head to a pulp with her own flashlight, beating her 10, 20, even 30, times, all this according to the Florida governor’s office and state reports.
Grossman, grabbing Park’s .357 magnum, pumped a bullet into the back of her skull, blowing her brains out, her blood gushing all over his clothes.
He went home, buried his gun and hers, burned his bloodstained clothes before tossing them in a lake, and changed the four tires on his car so they wouldn’t match the tire tracks at the murder site.
After her cremation, her ashes were taken by helicopter and scattered over the eagles’ nests on her beat.
Arrested, found guilty, Judge Crockett Farnell sentenced Grossman to death. Then came 24 years of appeals and delays.
Did I say this was a Jewish story? For years, Grossman was visited on death row by Rabbi Menachem Katz of Aleph Institute, an Orthodox chaplaincy. Grossman was a baal teshuvah, declares Rabbi Katz, literally “a master of repentance,” returning to Jewish practice.
In January, all appeals exhausted, Rabbi Katz sent a letter, signed by nearly 150 Chabad rabbis, to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, asking for mercy. Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky, a Chabad rabbi who also worked with Grossman, helped start an online petition that the rabbi says garnered more than 33,000 signatures.
Grossman was “a hero,” says Rabbi Kurinsky, by telephone. “It is very unusual to meet a human being that truly changes. He was the inspiration for tens of thousands of Jews to stand together and try to save a life. He turned himself around. That’s what a real hero is.”
For the love of a Jewish soul — there was no other apparent reason — variations of Katz and Kurinsky’s appeal were e-mailed around the Jewish world, from Florida to Lakewood, from Young Israel to Agudah to the Orthodox Union. Elie Wiesel signed on, as did Alan Dershowitz and Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. Haifa’s Chief Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen not only signed but also solicited a letter from Archbishop Fernando Filoni in the name of Pope Benedict XVI. Grossman “has repented and is now a changed person, having become a man of faith,” wrote the archbishop, as if he knew.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said Grossman “showed profound remorse and regret.”
Yet for 25 years, Grossman never expressed remorse to the Park family until the night of his execution.
Dershowitz wrote to the governor that this murder was not “heinous” enough for the death penalty. Crist said by e-mail: “Officer Park’s autopsy revealed lacerations on top of her head, hemorrhaging inside the scalp and extensive fracturing of the skull. All of these injuries resulted from Mr. Grossman’s attack. The facts of this crime clearly meet the definition of heinous, atrocious and cruel.”
Dershowitz and Grossman’s rabbinic supporters were saying two opposite things at once in his defense. On the one hand, Grossman was an introspective and serious baal teshuvah, capable of “profound” remorse, and yet, on the other hand, that Grossman could not comprehend the basic law against murder because he had such a low IQ that he was “borderline retarded,” according to Rabbi Kurinsky’s site. Yet long and detailed letters written by Grossman, posted on www.savemartingrossman.com, as well as on Yeshiva World News, reveal an intelligent letter-writer by any reasonable standard, someone who could write about his legal appeals and how “cognizant” he was of other people’s feelings, and the meaning of tefillin. Borderline retarded? As Crist said in his e-mail, Grossman’s actions after the murder demonstrated “his well-reasoned attempts to cover it up.”
As for the widespread claim by Grossman’s defenders that he only murdered Park under the influence of drugs and alcohol, how does anyone know? Grossman wasn’t tested for drugs or alcohol until 11 days after the murder, when he was arrested.
More than a few Orthodox bloggers were put off by it all. On the Frum Satire blog, “Jew for Justice” writes: “As someone who has spent years working on behalf of death row inmates and someone who is very much against the death penalty as practiced, this massive effort on his behalf sickens me.”
At Emes Ve-Emunah, an Orthodox online forum, Harry Maryles, also opposed to the death penalty, writes, “It is unseemly… that there is such an outcry by the Orthodox… to save this man as though he were Albert Schweitzer. What does that say about us to the world?” Meanwhile, Peggy Park “had a family who probably still grieves for her.”
But if that blogger understood a family’s grief, other Jews were downright cruel. At Vosizneias.com, an editorial by Rabbi Yair Hoffman said, “The harassment to the victim’s family was so significant that they actually asked the Jews to stop calling them and harassing them. Indeed, the family of this woman were called ‘Nazis’ [because the victim’s mother would not support the Jewish activists for Grossman] … Is this also not an enormous chillul Hashem [a defamation of God’s name]?”
Not only that, adds Rabbi Hoffman, “One phone caller to Gov. Crist actually said, ‘By us … the most important thing is a Jewish life.’ What? Is this person insane? Is this the message that we are giving?” One standard of justice for everyone except Grossman “because this guy happens to be one of us? … The fact is, an innocent young woman,” a “tzelem Elokim,” he called her, someone created in the image of God, “who dedicated her life to the betterment of the world, was brutally murdered with a bullet to her head.”
Rabbi Shafran, disavowing the extremists, explained Agudah’s support: “We did what anyone would do if their own son or daughter did a crime like that. We’d be outraged, furious, and yet if it was your child facing execution you’d do everything you could to plead for mercy — not to forgive, not to let him go, but to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.”
As his last afternoon ticked away, Grossman ordered his last meal from the prison canteen: a banana cream, peanut butter cookies, canned fruit punch and a chicken sandwich.
Just prior to being lethally injected at 6:04 p.m., Grossman confessed, sort of: “Everything that was done, whether I remember everything or not, I accept responsibility.” Then he said Shema Yisroel, adding “Ahavas Yisroel,” the transcendent love of one Jew for another that inspired so much of his support.
The body of Michoel Yechiel Ben-Avraham Grossman, a native of Florida, was shipped north to a funeral service at the Niklesberg Bais Medrash in Monsey, N.Y., where a car drove through the streets, blaring, “zecher tzaddik v’kudosh livrucha,” the memory of a righteous and holy man should be a blessing.
The hearse left Monsey, driving 80 miles into the mountains on Route 17 to Exit 100, and from there through the forests, where Grossman was buried in a Catskills grave.
You can hear the night wolves howling in the distant wild.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more reactions to the Grossman case, please go to Jonathan Mark’s blog at www.thejewishweek.org.