On Monday, a state appeals court upheld the conviction of Scott Dyleski, a former Lafayette teen, who was convicted of brutally killing Pamela Vitale, 52, in her rural Hunsaker Canyon home on October 15, 2005.
Dyleski was 16 at the time of Vitale’s killing and a neighbor of hers. The case had a lot of sensational, lurid elements that made it fodder for Court TV, Nancy Grace, and for headlines on local TV and radio and in the newspapers. Vitale was bludgeoned, possibly with a rock, and stabbed, and a double-crossed “T” was etched into her back. She was the wife of prominent attorney Daniel Horowitz, who had became one of Grace’s favorite “legal analysts” during the Scott Peterson trial.
Horowitz was also in the midst of defending another of Court TV’s favorite murder defendants, housewife Susan Polk, who was charged with killing her psychologist husband, Felix, in their posh Orinda hillside home. (The Polk case later became the subject of two books; one by Orinda writer Carol Pogash, Seduced by Madness, offered an especially good picture of the madness of Ms. Polk, as well as the craziness that lurks beneath our shiny, happy East Bay suburbs.)
Finally, there was the suspect himself, Scott Dyleski. He was described in various news accounts as a former Eagle Scout and dutiful young man who later turned to the “dark side” by dabbling in Goth fashion and creating drawings and poetry filled with dark, violent images. His home-life was—well–not conventional by the standards of Lafayette’s seemingly idyllic suburban Burton Valley or Happy Valley. He and his mother lived in an eco-friendly, strawbale home with two other families.
Maybe, according to some speculation, Dyleski had been bullied at high-achieving Acalanes High School, which he attended for two years before transferring to Diablo Valley College. Maybe, he had become depressed after the traffic death of his older half-sister when he was in middle school. Maybe, Columbine-killer-like, he was seething underneath with anti-social rage and pathology, and he exploded one fair October Saturday morning and took out his anger on Vitale. She was home alone at the time, supposedly surfing the Internet and looking forward to attending the ballet with a friend that evening.
Prosecutor Harold Jewett suggested that Dyleski was involved in a scam to steal credit card information from his rural Hunsaker Canyon neighbors to finance purchases of equipment needed to start a home marijuana growing operation. Or, Jewett also suggested, Dyleski was angry at a neighbor who hit and fatally injured his family dog, Jazz, two weeks before Vitale’s killing. And he mistook Vitale for that neighbor.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Lots of speculation and possible explanations for why Dyleski killed Vitale. But the trial never really told us anything definitive. I can say that with some authority. I attended some of the trial, including the opening and closing arguments and Dyleski’s sentencing. I heard Vitale’s gracious and articulate daughter, Marisa Vitale, say, at Dyleski’s sentencing that it added to her pain to not be able to understand “why” her mother died.
One of the jurors told reporters that the ultimate “why” of this crime eluded him and the other jurors as well, but they all agreed that the evidence, including DNA evidence, pointed to Dyleski as the killer. The evidence also pointed to him committing the crime during a burglary, which, in turn, made it a special circumstances case that allowed Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Those special circumstances could have made Dyleski, had he been 18 years or older at the time of the killing, eligible for the death penalty. But, as it happens, the US Supreme Court, outlawed the death penalty for juvenile killers in 2005.
So, I read about the appeals court decision Monday in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I thought about posting something right away. But I decided to stay away from it for a few days.
This case was particularly upsetting to me–much more than it should have been. I didn’t know anyone involved. Maybe it was upsetting because it involved the community of the high school I attended: Acalanes. Maybe it was upsetting because I could see the way the crime–including the massive media coverage–was traumatizing people on both sides of the case and in the community in which I live. Overall, I found the crime and the grief, anger, and devastation it left in its wake to be heartbreaking.
I read some of the comments that people left on the SFGate.com story about Dyleski’s conviction being upheld. Some people described him as a monster and said they were glad he would rot in the hell of prison for the rest of his life.
Given what became public about the case, and the defense strategy–Dyleski’s attorney saying there was insufficient evidence that he committed the crime–it’s hard to dispute this view that Dyleski is a remorseless teen sociopath.
Still, I strongly believe there is more to story and more to Dyleski–and that we don’t really know why this crime happened. The investigation and trial, in my opinion, skimmed the surface. No, I am not in league with some conspiracy theorists who, for a while–and maybe still are–pushing the notion that somehow Dyleski, now 20, was framed.
Maybe the “why” of why this terrible crime happened will come out one day, and maybe there’s a way to see Dyleski as something other than that monster and remorseless sociopath.
Of course, some might ask, does it matter? Do we really need to know more? Didn’t the jury convict the right person? Didn’t the judge impose the right sentence and take a dangerous killer off the streets for ever?
Maybe it just matters to me. For a while, crazy me, became a bit obsessed with finding out the “why.” I didn’t get too far.
But perhaps knowing more of the “why” would still help Vitale’s family and friends. In talking to familes of other murder victims, I’ve learned that many long harbor the need to know “why.” It’s essential for them to be able to formulate the “narrative” of a traumatic event. It helps them make sense of it, and somehow having that “story” helps them heal.
Knowing the “why” might also be useful to Dyleski’s friends and family. And, ultimately, it might be instructive to the community, raising awareness about “red flags” to look for when young people are at risk of hurting themselves or others.
I think the case also sheds light on the need of our criminal justice system–as over-burdened as it already is–to do more than just skim the surface of cases, especially ones like this that receive massive amounts of media coverage and involve a brutal crime and a young defendant.
To me, justice is about more than identifying and convicting a criminal. It’s also about revealing the truth, the “why.” Because the truth and knowing the “why” can lead to healing–for friends and families of the victims, for the friends and families of the defendants, for the community, and for, yes, for the defendants themselves.