One of the first things Jimmy Hoffa said to Frank Sheeran was, “I heard you paint houses.”
Sheeran replied, “I do my own carpentry, too.”
The exchange had nothing to do with paintbrushes or wood. According to a book-length confession from Sheeran at the end of his life, “painting houses” is mob-speak for murder (“painting” walls with victims’ blood) and “carpentry” is disposing of bodies (building coffins — although I presume that hit squads usually dispense with that nicety).
Hoffa apparently needed an occasional painting job, which, over the following years, Sheeran may have provided. Sheeran became a Hoffa loyalist and a key connection between unions and gangsters, as well as one of only two non-Italians identified by the FBI as being a top mob official.
So it’s ironic that, as he faded into wheelchair and nursing-home days, Sheeran gave a detailed confession to writer Charles Brandt about how he “painted” a house in Detroit with Hoffa’s blood and brains on orders from other mobsters.
In addition to confessing to a writer, Sheeran — raised devoutly Catholic — also unloaded his story on a priest.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to write about deathbed confessions. Just as I was reading about Sheeran, Connick v. Thompson hit the news. That case was moved along, in part, by a deathbed confession by a prosecutor, Gerry Deegan.
He told a DA-office colleague, Mike Riehlmann, that he had hidden evidence of Thompson’s innocence. Riehlmann didn’t come forward until years later, when Thompson’s own lawyers had begun to unravel the prosecution’s case.
Unfortunately, Connick v Thompson ended with the U.S. Supreme Court saying, “No problem. Hey, what’s a little official corruption between colleagues?” So after years of struggle (and 18 years in prison, 14 of it on death row, for the innocent Mr. Thompson), Deegan’s deathbed confession was not as much a blessing for Thompson as it should have been.
I don’t know whether Gerry Deegan also talked with a priest. But if he seriously regretted his corruption, you’ve got to wonder why he didn’t confess to, say, an investigative reporter. Or a representative from the ACLU or the Innocence Project. Mike Riehlmann might be a sterling fellow (though given his inaction, I doubt it). But surely Deegan knew Riehlmann, a colleague in a corrupt system, wasn’t motivated to take up a crusade on behalf of some poor black guy on death row against his own employer.
Deegan and Sheeran, that pair of confessing Irishmen, got me on this subject. Having never been on my own deathbed and having never been at the scene of somebody else’s last-gasp confession, I don’t have any voice of experience. But I can think of only four reasons someone would make a deathbed confession:
- To “get right” with God in an attempt to avoid hell *
- To get the feeling of guilt off one’s own chest even when it’s impossible to right the old wrong
- To have a last laugh (“Ha ha! Those smart cops never figured out that I killed Roger Rabbit!”)
- To give information that the living can actually use to right a wrong
I don’t know Deegan’s motivation, but Frank Sheeran, after spending a lifetime casually murdering people, hoped for a “get out of hell free” pass from The Almighty. As (according to that bastion of journalistic integrity, The National Enquirer) did another Irish-American scoundrel. Ted Kennedy not only assumed an “in” with God, but if the report is true, he actually wanted to get up there and say, “Hey, Mary Jo, really sorry about leaving you to asphyxiate over agonizing hours in that air pocket while I concocted a cover story to save My Fabulous Kennedyness. Thanks for not having any hard feelings.”
One reason I put off writing on this subject is that I didn’t want to offend anybody’s religious sensibilities. I have never understood why God reputedly wants the company of the Kennedys and Sheerans of the world while cheerfully stewing the Gandhis, the Buddhas, and the ordinary skeptical Joes and Josephines for several quadrillion years in vats of political speeches.
I can only say that, on the extreme outside chance that I ever make it to heaven … um, please don’t put me on the same cloud with Teddy and Frank.
The second and third reasons for death-bed confessions are personal and I really don’t have anything to say about them. To each his own. The fourth reason — to try to right a wrong — is the one that strikes me as being related to freedom (and that’s what this blog is supposed to be about, though you’ve probably noticed I’ve never let irrelevance stop me before).
While Teddy and Frank had no way of undoing the harms they committed, Deegan (whatever other motivation he might have had) actually did have the ability to mitigate the harm he did to John Thompson. Since Deegan was already dying and was a government actor walled in immunities, there’s not a chance he would ever have paid any earthly price for his role in sending Thompson to prison. So you have to wonder: Why did he choose the most obviously ineffective way to get the word out? Why didn’t he tell reporters or defenders?
I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But at a guess I’d have to say he didn’t really give a damn about poor, suffering Thompson — not even at the very end. He could have done something to right the wrong — something loud, clear, and public. He did just do something to make himself feel better without actually taking any responsibility. Sort of like Janet Reno after Waco.
As I say, I have no personal experience of deathbed confessions. The closest I came was listening to my grandmother, who faded away when I was a child. As she lay in bed in her last weeks, that blameless soul who had never done anything but bear more children and more responsibility than any one woman should have, fretted and muttered about her life’s omissions. Urgently, she would grab the arm of her caretaking daughter and say, “Don’t forget to tell Mattie about the spring house.” Or, “Be sure to give that watch to Carol.” But Mattie was long dead and nobody could remember anybody named Carol and what watch and what spring house nobody ever knew.
So maybe there’s just something about reaching the end that does that to a person.
I understand the need to be able to rid ourselves of guilty acts whose consequences we can’t undo. Without some easy “out” we might just end up so burdened with past regrets that we can’t function. (Or worse, we might say, “To heck with it; I’m already doomed. Might as well go out with a nice, violent bang.”) But if we have the ability to right a wrong — or even partially undo it — I don’t understand why any person of integrity would wait until it’s too late to take real responsibility for it. Let alone why anybody would then “confess” in a way that guarantees the wrong will go on. And on.
Unless it’s just as George Bernard Shaw said.
* Yes, I know the idea is actually not to confess out of fear, but to out of last-minute love of God and sincere repentance. But I don’t think many deathbed confessors manage that. Frank Sheeran, for one, seemed — at most! — to have mild regrets at killing his friend Hoffa (and many excuses about how it was really Hoffa’s fault and how he, Sheeran, didn’t have any choice). Even at the end, he seemed to take considerable pride in the efficiency of his other hits and suffer not a twinge of conscience.
Sorry for the slow blogging and for what some of you might think is a pointless post. The lack of blogitude is house-related. I had to speed up some DIY work these last few days to get a project ready for its professional finishing touches. (Photos later, I hope.) If this post is pointless, well I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. It was one of those things I had to write.