I am preparing to interview this afternoon for a reporter vacancy at a mid-sized daily newspaper in the Portland suburbs.
As I look at my portfolio and my clips from four years working full-time for the Daily Comet and Houma Courier newspapers, I am reminded of a mother and her two children whose tragic tale has had a major impact on my life.
It was a morning not unlike this one on Aug. 20, 2007, when I got a tip that there was a swarm of police on St. Anthony Street in Mathews, La. I asked Lafourche Sheriff’s spokesman Larry Weidel what was going on. His response: “Just get here. It’s bad.”
Inside the one-story brick house on St. Anthony Street, police found teacher’s aide Amy Hebert in bed with her two lifeless children, 9-year-old Camille and 7-year-old Braxton. She had stabbed them dozens of times and also stabbed herself repeatedly. She also killed the family dog.
I had been on the cops and courts beat for around six months at that point. I had covered murders, murder trials, fires, and every other calamity you could name. But this was an entirely different animal.
The gravity of the situation didn’t hit me that day. I was too busy trying to learn about Hebert – who she was, why she would want to kill her children, etc. The whole town seemed to be under a gag order, though. Who could blame them? Hebert’s actions didn’t just traumatize her family; they traumatized the whole community and beyond.
I wrote three more stories about Hebert during the week after she killed her children. She was charged with first-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
Lafourche District Attorney Cam Morvant II later announced he would seek death for Hebert – she stood to become the first person in three decades to be sentenced to death in Lafourche Parish.
Prior to Hebert’s capital murder trial in May 2009, I wrote at least a dozen stories about the progress of her case. I mentioned in the stories about how prosecutors planned to show the jury bloody knives, the children’s bed, and a Bible. The stories were written based off court documents.
Morvant promised Hebert’s family he would not divulge details of the case prior to the trial. He told me people would be shocked when the case went to trial. I didn’t expect to be one of those people.
The first day of Hebert’s trial blew me away. Hebert’s defense attorney George Parnham, who successfully defended Houston child-killer Andrea Yates on an insanity defense, told the jury in his opening statements that his client had heard the devil command her to kill her two children so her ex-husband wouldn’t take them away.
As a journalist, your job is to share information – news – with readers to make them more aware of what is happening in their community. This was something I had to share. The reader inside me thought, “Wow! The devil made her do it! Wow!”
I texted my editor alerting him what the next day’s story would be. In between court recesses, I updated my work Twitter with the case’s latest movements and told readers to visit the newspaper’s web site for more in-depth stories. I had a story people couldn’t wait to read. These type of stories don’t come around every day.
The second bombshell of the trial came when a doctor who had interviewed Hebert testified she had revealed to him that her children begged for their lives.
I hurriedly wrote that revelation in my notebook and tried to block out what it meant as a method of self-protection. How can you cover such an emotionally intense trial like Hebert’s if you are a wreck? You can’t.
The trial lasted more than a week. The jury selection before it had lasted two weeks. The case consumed everyone involved – the jurors, attorneys on both sides, Hebert’s family, me, etc.
Hebert’s family and friends broke along two camps – those who believed she had killed her children to gain revenge on her ex-husband and those who believed she was a great mom who snapped for unexplainable reasons.
Aside from covering Hurricane Gustav, I never scrambled so much as a reporter as I did during Hebert’s trial. I wrote an online story during my lunch break and then a separate story for the newspaper later that night. I wrote more than one hundred Tweets from the trial. I literally ate, drank, and slept the Hebert trial.
When the jury came back with a guilty verdict, I was not entirely surprised. I was also a bit relieved that it was coming to a close. Parnham had tried everything he could. But this wasn’t the Andrea Yates case.
Hebert wrote a letter to her ex-husband before killing her children that laid out her thought process. That created a believability gap that was too high, the jurors told me.
Days later, the same jury voted 9-3 to execute Hebert. In Louisiana, the jury must rule unanimously for execution or the judge sentences the defendant to life. Hebert is being held at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women while her case is appealed.
Nearly two years after her conviction, the Hebert case continues to exist, not only in the Louisiana appeals court system, but in the thoughts of the community shocked and saddened by her actions.
She continues to be a big part of my life even though I am no longer at the newspaper.
My portfolio that I will take into my job interview today contains the article I wrote after she was found guilty. It also contains recognition from the New York Times for winning its then-monthly Chairman’s Award for my coverage – both in print and on Twitter – of Hebert’s trial.
I am sure I will mention her name today as I talk about my experience. And I am sure I will continue to mention her anytime someone asks me what was the toughest or biggest assignment I covered when I worked as a journalist in south Louisiana.
Little did I know as a 22-year-old I would cover a mother’s murder of her two children or as a 24-year-old cover the same mother’s capital murder trial. These experiences are part of the fabric of my experience. On days like today, I feel fortunate they are.
NOTE: When I say I feel fortunate I covered Hebert’s case I do not mean I am glad she killed her children. She destroyed several lives and left many people with questions that will never be answered.