Saturday, July 18, 2009

Poetry from the Law (part 3)

(re-published 2009)
Rachel Loden
(illustration above by Tad Richards)

An “affidavit” is legal document, a written statement made under penalty of perjury, used in various circumstances. One common use of the affidavit is at the end of a police (law enforcement) criminal investigation.

Sometimes, particularly for serious felonies, the police will want the approval of a judge before making an arrest. To get that approval, a police official submits an affidavit. The affidavit sets out the circumstances of the crime and the suspect’s involvement. The point is to show the judge that there is probable cause – a reasonable belief – that the suspect committed the crime.

A good affidavit, then, spells out the facts of the case in a comprehensive and straightforward manner. The style and tone is very much – to invoke the phrase used in the 1960s’ TV series Dragnet – “All we want are the facts . . .”

An affidavit then, tends to be very logical, very careful, and very clear. Its job is to make a case.

As such, an affidavit itself is not likely to be much of a poem, even if considered as a type of prose poem. Poems – the good ones – suggest and imply, leap and dive, intensify and exalt, have faceted surfaces, and sometimes exist for no purpose other than to be what they are, with words themselves the primary spectacle. This is all far different from the super-rational step-by-step direct exposition and entirely utilitarian purpose of the affidavit.

And so imagine my excitement today, to bear witness to a wondrous poem made entirely from an affidavit: Rachel Loden’s “Affidavit.” The poem was first separately published, as a stand-alone chapbook in 2001, and was re-published just this year in Loden’s Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta Press). In a note at the back of the latter book, Loden states the poem “is based on an affidavit filed by Palo Alto police detective Mike Denson.”

The detective’s affidavit concerned a major local (Palo Alto) murder: a husband killing his wife, at home, after many years of marriage. The affidavit was published in the local paper in May, 2000. In an interview in 2001 with that same paper, Loden explained that she found the police affidavit “compelling” and that it “sparked [her] imagination.” Writing a poem was for Loden a way (in the reporter’s words) of “dealing with the tragedy.” Or, as Loden put it, “The murder was horrifying and, as a woman, I took it to heart.”

Here’s Loden’s poem:

A luminous path of blood led from the kitchen
to the basement steps. The time of Ms. F.’s

death. The time the FedEx
driver knocked on the door. Her head

was on the landing next to a brass ship’s bell.
He said he drove to a vacant lot on Sneath

Lane in San Bruno. It seemed the victim
had been sitting at the table when she died.

Her legs extended up the stairwell. Mr. F.
could not explain the bloody shoes and towel

in his Suburban. He claimed the front door
was ajar. He called her name, “Christine.”
This poem works – it rivets and draws you in – even if you know nothing about the affidavit on which it was based. It is rich with gothic-horror details, particulars that both disturb – haunt, actually – and arouse curiosity. This begins right away, with the extremely vivid and attention-grabbing opening, “A luminous path of blood . . . .” The key word there is “luminous.” It’s lucid, radiant, brilliant, otherworldly: luminous. I read that, and it sparks a glow in my imagination.

The poem’s second and third sentences – spread over three lines – deepen the mystery. The repetition of the word “time” in the two sentences suggests mortality, while also appealing to the universal impulse to solve a puzzle (here, the question of what’s up with the blood and Ms. F’s death, and the significance thereto of the time of death and of the knock on the door) – an impulse that Loden will tug at throughout the poem. There’s also in the third sentence the way the first mention of the ultimate fact of the poem – “death” – drops into it all, following a line break and a double-space. And the way that the seemingly innocuous fact of a knock on the door also connotes death, at least to me, via a reminder of the Bob Dylan song title.

Next in the poem, at the very end of the fourth line – and this stuns – there appears a woman’s head. Loden again very effectively uses both a line break and the following double space – but this time the reverse of how it was used when “death” first appeared – to leave the woman’s head out there, all alone. It’s really scary, after having read about the path of blood, and a death, to come upon
                                                                               . . . . Her head
just there, hanging almost by itself at the end of the line. When I first came upon that phrase, sitting there atop the double-space blankness that follows, my pulse raced. It did again, typing it just now. It’s another vivid visual image, filmic in its intensity and the way Loden immediately cuts away via the line-break.

And then there’s “a brass ship’s bell” on a landing, next to the head.

I’m not exactly sure why I fixate so strongly on the brass ship’s bell in “Affidavit,” but I do. It probably has something to do with it being so damn incongruous compared to the poem’s other, more horrifying, details, to say nothing of the incongruity of a ship’s bell in a home. Sometimes, as here, unusual and out of place just plain scares me, as in, “this ain’t right, get me out of here, now!” Part of the striking oddness of the brass bell, of course, is that it parallels the grotesque thought of “[h]er head” on the stairway landing. Plus, it’s a bell, and thus inevitably suggests death, via John Donne’s Meditation XVII (“never send to know for whom the bell tolls . . . ).

Other gothic-horror details follow. A pair of seemingly disembodied female legs “extended up the stairwell” appear, as do “bloody shoes and towel” in the man’s vehicle. Plus much more that you try to figure out, including the various elements of the man’s purported alibi.

The final two sentences on one level are just elements of the claimed alibi, but they work to bring about a powerful end to the poem. First, they show much about the case including the mind-set of the killer. The details presented before the concluding lines, particularly that “Mr. F. / could not explain the bloody shoes and towel // in his Suburban,” undercut his alibi claim that he found the front door ajar and called out his wife’s name. That the husband would lie about this, of course, further reflect a desperate attempt to avoid being caught and an inner disconnect – a chilling coldness – about what he’d done.

But within all that the poem’s final word – “Christine” – is also deeply poignant. Before this concluding word, the poem’s two people were only referred to, and I believe purposefully, by formal titles (“Ms.” and “Mr.”), initial-only last names, gendered pronouns, and a relatively abstract noun (“victim”). Coming after all that, the final word – “Christine” – is intensely personal. The name, the dead woman’s name, echoes out and back in the mind.


As great as “Affidavit” is by itself, it can be appreciated even more by comparing it to the source text, the detective’s actual affidavit. Let me put it like this: the poem consists of ten sentences, and totals about 100 words, while the detective’s affidavit runs for more than 150 sentences, and has more than 3,000 words. Obviously, Loden selected what to present, choosing only a very few details for the poem. She did so, I would suggest, to intensify what happened and her response to it.

But Loden not only selected the details, she arranged them. The sentences and phrases taken from the detective – and Loden largely presents verbatim selections – are not presented in the order they appear in the affidavit. It’s quite interesting to see what she did. I’ve pasted immediately below the text of the entire affidavit (it was printed in the local newspaper shortly after the police filed it with the court). Within it, I’ve indicated via a larger font size those portions Loden used in the poem. The number in the bracket before each of these sections indicates in which of the ten sentences the particular language or information appears in Loden’s poem. As you’ll see, and as discussed following the text of the detective’s affidavit (warning: it is lengthy), Loden did much selecting and arranging to make her poem:
Case No. 00-126-0111

The following information is based on information that I hove personally gathered or that has been relayed to me by other Palo Alto police officers, members of the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office, and/or members of Santa Clara County Crime Laboratory.


On May 5, 2000, Kenneth Fitzhugh Jr. killed his wife, Kristine Fitzhugh, by beating her over the head with a blunt object and strangling her. This vicious assault occurred in the kitchen of their home located at 1545 Escobita Ave., Palo Alto, California. During the assault, the victim lost a substantial amount of blood. Mr Fitzhugh attempted to clean up the victim's blood, which had dripped onto the kitchen floor and furniture. He then moved her body and "staged" it at the foot of the basement stairway adjacent to a brass ship bell. Later he brought friends to the scene so that he would have witnesses to the "discovery" of his wife's body. He attempted to mislead investigators by suggesting that the victim had been killed when she fell down the basement stairs and hit her head.

Factual Background

The victim, Kristine Fitzhugh, and the defendant were married for the last 33 years. They had two children. The victim worked as part-time music teacher for the Palo Alto School District and was (sic) did volunteer work for community organizations. Mr. Fitzhugh was self-employed as a real estate consultant and ran the business out of their residence. He also did paralegal work on a part-time basis. For the last 18 years, the Fitzhugh family has lived at 1545 Escobita Ave., Palo Alto.

The Crime Scene

The Fitzhughs' home is in a neighborhood is (sic) known as "Southgate". The house has two stories, four bedrooms, an attic, and a basement. The following description reflects the appearance of the home when police saw it on May 5, 2000, the day Kristine was killed. The kitchen had a hardwood floor, an island, and a stainless steel sink with a garbage disposal. On the pink tile counter was a paper towel rack. Under the sink was a storage cabinet that contained cleaning fluids and paper bags. A rectangular wooden table and four wooden chairs were located by the east wall. One of the chairs was situated at the south end of the table. The table was centered in front of a large window that looked eastward toward a section of the back yard. Dark green pattern wallpaper covered the kitchen walls.

At the end of the hallway was a laundry room. This room had shelving that was used for storage, including a large package of paper towels. There was a washer and a dryer that had blood spatter on them.

Directly across from the kitchen was a door that led down to the basement. The basement floor was cement. The basement contained storage cabinets, cleaning materials, tools, and other objects consistent with a home that had been lived in for 18 years.

The 12 stairs leading into the basement appeared to have been rebuilt recently. The white steps had synthetic anti-slip strips attached to the leading edge of each step. There was a round wooden handrail adjacent to the stairs. One of the victim's shoes was located on the left side of the seventh step from the top of the staircase. The landing was about four feet square and was covered with a carpet. The carpet had a wet bloodstain on it. [4-b] A large heavy brass ship bell had been placed at an unusual location, blocking a portion of the landing. Fire Personnel moved the bell because it interfered with their resuscitation efforts. A telephone was located at the base of the stairs. Items of clothing in dry cleaning bags and school papers were found near the victims' body. These items had blood on them by the time police arrived. The basement floor had a large pool of wet blood consistent with the location of victim's head when resuscitation efforts were attempted. The Fitzhughs owned three automobiles. There is no garage and only one of the cars could fit in the driveway. Escobita Avenue is a narrow tree lined street. When a large car, such as the Fitzhughs' Suburban, was parked on the street, there was room for only one car to pass it at a time. Mr. Fitzhugh typically drove a green convertible 325 BMW or a blue 1999 Suburban (California License plate # 4JSK143). Both of these vehicles typically were parked on the street in front of the house. Ms. Fitzhugh drove a silver 325 BMW, which she parked in the driveway. Officers responding to the scene found the (sic) Ms. Fitzhugh's car parked in the driveway and other vehicles parked on the street in front of the house.

Time of Death

According to witnesses, Kristine Fitzhugh was at Peet's Coffee Shop in Palo Alto on May 5, 2000, after teaching her regularly scheduled music class. At approximately noon she bought two muffins and coffee.

The investigation determined that a Fed-Ex employee, who attempted to deliver a package to the victim's home at 12:08 p.m. on May 5, 2000, said that no one answered the door. The driver stated that there were no cars in the driveway, and the Suburban was not parked in front of the house. The event was initially reported to the police by way of a "911" call that was placed from the victim's residence at 1:41 p.m. on May 5, 2000. Based on this and other information, I believe that
[2] the time of the victim's death was between 12:08 p.m. ([3] the time the Fed-Ex driver knocked on the door) and 1:41 p.m. (the time of the "911" call).

Discovery of Victim

Two female friends of the victim told investigators that Mr. Fitzhugh arrived at their home on May 5, 2000 around 1:30 p.m. driving his blue Suburban. He told them that his wife had not shown up for class and he wanted to go by his house to see if she was there. They rode with Fitzhugh to his Escobita Avenue home. They noticed that the front door was ajar and remained in the car while Mr. Fitzhugh went inside. They saw him go upstairs and heard him calling out Kristine's name. Mr. Fitzhugh looked around downstairs and then came back outside and told them he need (sic) help because his wife was injured. One of the women went downstairs with Mr. Fitzhugh. She observed Kristine Fitzhugh's body lying at the base of the stairs. [4-a] Her head was on the landing, near the ship's bell and [7] her legs extended up the stairwell. There were several pieces (sic) clothing in dry cleaning bags and school papers under her body. One woman called "911" and told the Palo Alto Police Department dispatcher that a person was injured inside the residence located at 1545 Escobita Avenue.

The Fire Department and Officer Priess of the Palo Alto Police Department were dispatched to the residence. In the meantime, one of the women and Mr. Fitzhugh moved the victim to a flat area of the basement. Fire Department personnel arrived and were directed to the basement. Resuscitation was attempted but Ms. Fitzhugh was already dead.

Officer Priess arrived shortly after the Fire Department. He found Kenneth Fitzhugh Jr. and the two women at the residence. He noticed that Kenneth Fitzhugh was wearing black dress shoes, black pants and a light colored dress shirt. Mr. Fitzhugh told Officer Priess that the injured woman was his wife, and went on to say that she must have slipped while carrying some dry cleaning down the stairs and hit her head. Mr. Fitzhugh explained that when he discovered his wife's body, her head was at the bottom of the stairs next to the ship's bell, and her feet were above her on the stairs. He said that some dry cleaning was under her head and one of her shoes was located farther up the stairs.

Officer Priess believed the death to be an unattended accident. He called in back up to assist in the investigation. Mr. Fitzhugh and the two women were taken to a room where they remained until investigators arrived. In the mean time (sic) Mr. Fitzhugh made telephone calls and told people that his wife had been killed when she slipped and fell down the basement stairs.

I was assigned the investigation and arrived at the residence at approximately 3:00 p.m. on May 5, 2000. I observed the condition of the house, and in particular the stairwell area where the victim had been found. The victim's right shoe was on the seventh step from the top. There was blood on the victim, mostly around her head area. There was more blood on the floor and on a large heavy brass bell. By the time I arrived, the ship's bell had been moved away from the landing area to make room for resuscitation efforts.

On the dining room table, I observed the victim's purse, keys, an uneaten muffin, and a bottle of water. On the kitchen table was a half-eaten muffin, a half-full cup of coffee, a notebook, some school papers, and an orange marker. [6] It appeared to me that the victim had been sitting at the kitchen table immediately before she died.

Suspect's Story

Kenneth Fitzhugh agreed to come to the police department so that I could interview him. I asked him to tell me what he and his wife had done that day. Mr. Fitzhugh proceeded to tell me the following:

He and his wife, Kristine Fitzhugh, got up around 6 a.m., read the newspaper and drank coffee. They went jogging at approximately 7:00 a.m., returning around 7:45 a.m. Mr. Fitzhugh said he took off his clothes and put his running shoes back in his bedroom closet. Fitzhugh claimed that after showering he put on the same clothing that he was wearing while talking with me. These were the same clothes he had on when Officer Priess first arrived at the house. At around 10:00 a.m. his wife left the house in her silver BMW and headed to teach her regular scheduled 10:20 a.m. music class at nearby Duvenick (sic) Elementary School. [5] Mr. Fitzhugh claimed that he left the residence around 11:00 a.m. and drove his Suburban to a vacant lot located at 2101 Sneath Lane in San Bruno, California. He arrived at 11:45 a.m. and parked his Suburban in the parking lot adjacent to the vacant lot. He said he then walked around the undeveloped property for about an hour and considered whether it was a suitable site for a building a potential client wished to construct. However, Mr. Fitzhugh could not provide specific details concerning what he did during the time spent on the property. He admitted that that he did not have any plans or drawings, did not know the size or layout of the building, and lacked many of the particulars necessary to evaluate whether the property was suitable. He said that he did not speak to anyone while at the site.

Mr. Fitzhugh said that he had an appointment at 1:30 to pick up some friends in Palo Alto to run errands. He left the property and drove southbound on Highway 101. At approximately 1:15 p.m., near the Woodside Road turnoff, he received a call on his cell phone from a coworker of Kristine, which had been forwarded, from his home phone. The coworker told him that his wife had not arrived to teach her 12:50 p.m. class at Addison Elementary School. Fitzhugh suggested that she try Kristine's new cell phone number, which he gave to her. She said that she would attempt to reach her by calling that number. He said that he would do the same. He told me that he immediately called his wife's new cell phone number and called the home phone number. He said there was no answer at either location.

Fitzhugh said he continued to drive to the home of two friends of his and Kristine's in Palo Alto. Once at the house he told them that his wife had not showed up for her 12:50 class, and that he wanted to go back to his house to see if she was there. They agreed and he drove them to his residence on Escobita Avenue in his blue Suburban.

[9] When they arrived, Fitzhugh said his wife's car was parked in the driveway and the front door to the house was ajar. He went inside while the two women waited outside in his Suburban. [10] He said that he first looked upstairs and called out her name. He then looked for her on the on the (sic) first floor. When he noticed that the door to the stairwell leading to the basement was ajar he looked down the stairwell, he saw his wife lying near the bottom landing. Her body was on top of some dry cleaning, her hands were clutching some items, and her face was touching a large brass ship bell. He said he did not immediately go down the stairs. Instead, he went back outside and told the woman that he "needed some help". They all came inside, and one of the women went down into the basement with Mr. Fitzhugh. The other woman called 911. He said that he and one of the women attempted CPR on the victim. They continued to give CPR until the personnel from the Fire Department arrived at around 1:40 p.m. He said he realized that his wife was dead while he was giving her CPR but nevertheless he continued until Fire Department personnel took over. He said about the time that Officer Priess arrived he was told by a member of the Fire Department that his wife was dead.

After hearing Mr. Fitzhugh's explanation of his actions that day, I asked him for consent to search his house and his cars. I was interested in determining whether anything had been stolen from the house. He agreed, and I obtained a Consent to Search form. He provided me with most of the information that was necessary to completely fill out the form, however, when it came time to sign the form he declined to sign it. I left the room briefly, and when I returned he said that he changed his mind and that I could search the house and the cars as long as he could come along. I agreed. He then signed the consent to search form.

I returned to the house with Mr. Fitzhugh. Other officers assisted in searching the home and the vehicles. While at the home an officer told me that a bloody paper towel and a pair of bloody running shoes had been found in Mr. Fitzhugh's Suburban. The Suburban was sealed and impounded. I asked Mr. Fitzhugh if he could show me where the running shoes he had worn that morning were located. He took me upstairs to a closet in the master bedroom. I observed an empty space in a row of shoes that were lined up on the floor of the closet. He told me his running shoes should be where the empty space was. He described the running shoes to me. [8] I informed him that his running shoes had been found in his Suburban, and showed him a picture of the recovered shoes. He had no explanation as to why they would be in the vehicle. He further stated that he had no explanation for why they would have his wife's blood on them. He also could not provide an explanation for the bloody towel. Subsequently, Mr. Fitzhugh left the house and went to pick up his son at the airport.

In an interview conducted several hours later, Mr. Fitzhugh told me that perhaps his wife's blood had gotten on the shoes when she cut her left hand a week or two before while gardening. He said the (sic) he applied direct pressure to her wound to stop the bleeding, and suggested perhaps that explained the blood on the shoe. He still could not explain how his running shoes got into the Suburban, or why they would have blood on the sole.

When asked again about the bloody paper towel that had been found in the back of his Suburban, this time he said that he had cleaned himself up after the police arrived and then went outside to check on his dogs that were in the Suburban. He said he believed that he might have tossed the paper towel in the vehicle at that time.

Coroner's Investigation and Findings

I met with the Chief Coroner for Santa Clara Counsy Dr. Edward Schmunk, and his associate, forensic pathologist Dr. Diane Vertis at the victim's 1545 Escobita Avenue residence.

Dr. Vertis conducted the autopsy and told me that she observed the following injuries on the victim: 1) three impact wounds on the top of her head, indicating that the victim had been stuck from behind with a blunt object; 2) three more impact wounds on the back of the head, indicating that she had been struck from behind with at blunt object; 3) a puncture wound behind the victim's right ear that extended through her skull and into the brain; indicating that a blunt object had struck the head with sufficient force to fracture the skull; 4) injuries to the victim's throat and neck indicating that she had been strangled; 5) injuries to the victim's face, including two black eyes, indicating that she had been punched and/or slapped in eyes, mouth and face; and 6) a "defensive" type injury to her left little finger, consistent with her having put her hand up to block a blow. Embedded in the laceration was the victim's wedding ring.

Both Dr. Vertis and Dr. Schmunk told me that in their expert opinions the head wounds ("craniocerebral trauma") were the cause of death, and manual strangulation was a contributing factor. They said that these injuries were not consistent with the victim falling down the basement stairs of the residence. These wounds were consistent with the assailant attacking Ms. Fitzhugh from behind with a blunt object and the victim at least briefly attempting to fend off the attack. The injuries were consistent with an attack that included the assailant having grabbed Kristine's neck, attempting to strangle her with one hand, while punching her face with the other. In all likelihood, they believed Ms. Fitzhugh was dead before she was moved to the basement.

Blood Evidence

Several spatters of blood were located in the kitchen area. Some of this blood was located under objects. On closer inspection, members of the police department were able to locate over seventy blood spatters in the kitchen area alone. Some of the blood spatter evidence was consistent with blood flying off an object used to assault the victim. More blood spatter evidence was located in the laundry room.

On May 10, 2000, members of the Santa Clara County Laboratory of Criminalist and members of the Palo Alto Police Department conducted luminol testing at the residence. This is a procedure whereby a special liquid chemical that has a fluorescent reaction to blood is sprayed on an area. This procedure allows for detection of blood that can not be seen by the naked eye, and is especially useful in detecting blood residue remaining after an assailant cleans up the scene of a violent crime. Photographs were taken documenting the luminol testing and are attached hereto as Exhibits 1-6. The bluish color that appears in these photographs I believe reflects the luminol reacting with blood.

Evidence of blood was located on the kitchen chair that was found next to the half-eaten muffin and Ms. Fitzhugh's music papers (Exhibit 1b and 2b). Evidence of blood was found on the kitchen wall (Exhibit 3b). Evidence of a large area of blood was revealed on the kitchen floor (Exhibit 4b). [1] A luminous path of blood led from the kitchen to the top of the basement stairs (Exhibit 5b). Evidence of a pool of blood was detected on the top of basement stairs (Exhibit 5b and 6b). Apparent in Exhibits 4b and 5b are distinctive patterns that appeared to me to be consistent with the soles of Mr. Fitzhugh's running shoes. Within the luminous images in Exhibits 4b and 6b, there appeared a pattern consistent with someone having wiped up blood.

A complete search of Mr. Fitzhugh's Suburban was conducted on May 10, 2000. A medium size Brooks Brother's (sic) shirt was found stuffed under the front seat. On the front of the shirt was a large round stain that appeared to be blood. In the master bedroom closet I found other medium sized men's dress shirts. A witness recalled Mr. Fitzhugh wearing a similar shirt on many occasions.

DNA Test Results

A blood sample was taken from Kristine Fitzhugh at the time of the autopsy. A blood sample was also obtained from Mr. Fitzhugh. Mr. Fitzhugh's running shoes and the shirt found in his Suburban were submitted to the Santa Clara County Crime Laboratory for DNA testing. The Santa Clara Crime Laboratory is nationally certified to conduct DNA testing. A member of the Crime Laboratory told me that DNA testing established that Kristine Fitzhugh's blood was on both the running shoes and the shirt found in Mr. Fitzhugh's Suburban.

Attempts To Corroborate Suspect's Story

Mr. Fitzhugh was asked to provide any information or witnesses that could help corroborate his claim that he was away from the home from 11:00 a.m. until 1:41 p.m. on May 5, 2000. Other than the two women who he picked up and took back to his house, and Kristine's coworker, Fitzhugh told me that he did not speak to anyone else and did not know anyone that saw him during this time period.

The phones in the residence were hooked up to caller identification boxes. These devices recorded the time and the number of the last ten calls that were made to the residence. The devices were examined and the numbers stored therein were documented. The number from Kristine's coworker was located on the boxes and the time indicated was consistent with her statement. According to Mr. Fitzhugh's story, his cell phone number should have on the (sic) appeared shortly before or shortly after that call. This was not the case. His cell phone number did not show up on of any of the caller identification boxes.

A fellow police officer told me that he drove to the location to 2101 Sneath Lane, San Bruno, and determined that it was vacant lot adjacent to a business called the Family Golf Center. The officer told me he spoke to employees of the Family Golf Center. He spoke to a manager of the facility. She told him that she knows Kenneth Fitzhugh and had an on going (sic) long-term friendly business relationship with him. She has spoken to him on several occasions. She said that Mr. Fitzhugh he (sic) had been involved in getting the city building permits for the facility. She pointed out the vacant lot to him (2101 Sneath Lane). The lot was adjacent to the office and was clearly visible from the office. The manager told Officer Souza that due to the nature of their relationship, it would be unusual for Mr. Fitzhugh to be on or near the property and not come into her office and speak with her or other employees. She told him that if he had been at the property on May 5th between 11:45 a.m. and 12:45 a.m, she would have seen him.

Mr. Fitzhugh had shown me where on Kristine's hand she had allegedly been injured in the garden accident. Dr Vertis examined the same area of victim's hand and said based on the description of the injury, she expected to see some indication of the wound. She saw none.

Mr. Fitzhugh has told me that nothing was missing from the residence. During the investigation I have not discovered any evidence of a forced entry into the residence or any evidence that property was stolen from the residence.

The facts set forth in this written statement are true, based upon my information and belief, except those facts which are set forth as my own observations, which I know to be true based upon personal knowledge.

Dated: May 19, 2000
Detective Mike Denson
Palo Alto Police Department


The highlighting and numbering I’ve added within the affidavit show how Loden selected and then skillfully re-arranged details. I marvel at her work. A key example is the first line in Loden’s poem, describing a “luminous path of blood.” As seen above, this detail comes from very near the end of the detective’s affidavit, and indeed is the last fact from the legal document chosen by Loden for the poem. Why Loden in her poem completely switched where this fact appears is obvious: it’s an attention grabber of the first magnitude, horrifying, mysterious, and even otherworldly.

Similarly, the first detail in the affidavit used by Loden (the brass ship’s bell) doesn’t appear until her poem’s fourth sentence. And thus, I think, this odd but compelling detail is made even odder and more compelling, appearing as it does in the middle of what is at that point plainly the scene of a most heinous crime.

In fact, Loden re-ordered almost all the details and language she selected relative to where they they appeared in the detective’s statement, and doing that made for a better poem. Want to see what I mean? Here’s a poem made from the exact sentences of Loden’s poem, and in the same style (couplets), but with the sentences presented in the order the information appears in the actual affidavit:
Her head was on the landing
next to a brass ship’s bell. The time of Ms. F.’s

death. The time the FedEx
driver knocked on the door.

Her legs extended up the stairwell. It seemed the victim
had been sitting at the table when she died.

Mr. F. said he drove to a vacant lot on Sneath
Lane in San Bruno. He claimed the front door

was ajar. He called her name, “Christine.”
He could not explain the bloody shoes and towel

in his Suburban. A luminous path of blood
led from the kitchen to the basement steps.
This poem just doesn’t make it, does it? Not even close, actually. There’s too much shown too soon, it proceeds way too logically in the middle, has little if any mystery or tension to it, and the final lines have none of the sincere touch of humanity of Loden’s poem.

Loden’s re-arranging of the information, as well as her selection of details, must have been a time-consuming and difficult task given the range of choices available. The possibilities here were enormous: she first had to winnow almost two hundred sentences to ten, and after that literally millions of combinations and permutations were still possible with regard to how those ten sentences would be ordered (and millions more if the possibilities with line-breaks and form (e.g., couplets versus quatrains) are considered).

Such circumstances perhaps naturally give rise to thoughts of the role of poetic inspiration, intervention by the muse, or just good luck. And maybe some of that happened for “Affidavit.” But my theory, for this particular case, is that a poem this good, based on such a lengthy source text, didn’t happen in a flash. There must have been a whole lot of hard work, a whole lot of thinking, considering and experimenting before the poem was completed.

And so my verdict: given the poem Loden made – and please, scroll back up to the top of this post and read it again – her poetic eye and skills are extremely fine; the selecting and ordering of the details and language here, and the making of a poem from that material, are superb. “Affidavit,” no less than the work in Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, or that in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, is a poem from the law for the ages.


Loden’s “Affidavit” when first published (in 2001) received unusual attention in Palo Alto, where the crime took place and where Loden lives. As mentioned above, the local paper had a reporter interview her, and the resulting article printed her poem in its entirety. That kind of recognition in the general civic community doesn’t happen very often for a poem, and here I think it is a mark of both the power of the subject matter and the quality of the poem itself.

Another part of the unusual response to Loden’s poem is that a copy of the “Affidavit” chapbook was bought by the Stanford University (and here’s the kicker) Law Library!!! That could only happen for a poem from the law, yes? In the Stanford Law Library’s Special Collections, Loden’s book/poem is now forever assigned call number LAW-0436, and has the following library subject-matter entries:

Subject (LC): Fitzhugh, Kristine--Poetry.
Subject (LC): Murder victims--California--Palo Alto.
Subject (LC): Murder--California--Palo Alto--Poetry.

Those are pretty unique catalog entries for a book of poems. I only wish the library cataloger had not focused solely on the poem’s crime aspects (“Murder Victim” / “Murder”) but also included subject matter entries regarding some of the other, may I say more “poetic” facts that Loden included. In particular, I’d love to be researching in a library and come across an entry like this:

Subject (LC): Brass Ship’s Bell--Murder--California--Palo Alto--Poetry.

Yes, that would be something! Even more seriously, Stanford ought to add the following catalog entry, so as to give full recognition to Loden’s poem from the law:

Subject (LC): Affidavit--Murder--California--Palo Alto--Poetry.


“Affidavit” is not the only poem from the law by Loden. Soon here in “the glade,” I’ll write about another of her works based on a legal document, a poem made entirely from language taken from the Last Will and Testament of Richard Nixon. [Update, July 26, 2009: click here, if you please, for my post on Loden’s poem “Last W & T,” made from language taken from Nixon’s Will.]

My previous posts on Poetry from the Law, if you please, can be seen by clicking through here (on Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony), and here (on M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!).


Rachel Loden
drawings by Tad Richards

(Pomegranate Press, 2001)

(the chapbook / first separate publication)


is republished in

Rachel Loden
Dick of the Dead
(Ahsahta Press, 2009)


John Olson said...

While I concur that Rachel Loden's choice of material and artistry are compelling and brilliant, kudos should also go to Detective Mike Denson of the Palo Alto Police Department. Are all affidavits written this smoothly, this lucidly, this carefully? It makes me want to become a detective.

Steven Fama said...

Good question John.

First, I'm assuming that Denson himself wrote the affidavit. Because it was so dang good, I had some question in my mind whether others, including perhaps a prosecutor-lawyer, helped with the drafting. But a book about the case -- Carlton Smith, Blood Will Tell (2003) -- does not suggest anything other than that Denson did it himself.

Most police affidavits are used to support a request for a search warrant, not an arrest warrant as in this case. Many affidavits in support of search warrants are very formulaic, especially in for example run-of-the-mill drug cases. But even there, care is taken to make sure the essential points are made to support the request.

The Denson affidavit is exceptional, for the reasons you state exceptional lucidity, exceptionally extreme care).

In Blood Will Tell, the author Carlton Smith writes that Denson had been Palo Alto's primary homicide investigator for three years at the time of this case, and was 38 years old. Smith also states -- and I think this gets right to your pont -- that Denson was "peculiarly disciplined" in his work.

According to Smith, Denson "methodically applied" the rules for investigating homicides, "leaving nothing to chance, the same way a master carpenter builds a house: going step by step and cutting no corners."

Smith continues (this all at page 17 of Blood Will Tell, findable via Google books):

"Not for Denson were any wild leaps of intuition, no sudden flash of inspiration to arrive at the solution by a great . . .leap of the imagination. Instead, Denson prided himself on his thoroughness, his patience, and the persistence of his logic, almost like a geometry student applying his compass, ruler, protractor, and theorems of cause and effect . . . ."

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Hi Steve,
Eigner/DL thing is up. Jen