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May 2, 2009

The killing of Pamela Vitale and the life sentence for Scott Dyleski—a tragedy all around in this horrific 2005 Lafayette murder case

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.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was a Psychology major in college. When murders happen people often feel such a sense of turmoil and insecurity in their own lives. They fear that random crimes happen without cause. I can say for a fact that there is always a cause. The murderer had 16 years to grow up. During that time many things could have happened to him. There could have been severe abuse caused by family, peers, or other adults. Many people fear that middle class "happy" children suddenly turn into Psycho killers. That is not the case. There was a cause for this murderer's violent behavior. His parents could have been extremely neglectful in his upbringing. Drug use, for example, can go unnoticed for years. A person's mental state can go downhill rapidly. Drugs lead to irrational thoughts and paranoia. I am sure that this young man had a very complicated life with a mixture of drug use, troubled times, frustrations, parental neglect, and abuse. I have known many Eagle Scouts and trust me, they pretend to be role models when they are in their uniform, but they can be extremely self centered and irresponsible people. People put on masks when in public, and in their private lives they can be quite angry and physically violent. We never know the whole story about other people's lives, but we have to realize that there is always an untold story that we haven't heard yet.

Soccer Mom said...

Dear psychology major,
From what I know about this case, your comment is very astute, and you said some things well that I couldn't say myself.

"I am sure that this young man had a very complicated life with a mixture of drug use, troubled times, frustrations, parental neglect, and abuse. People put on masks when in public, and in their private lives they can be quite angry and physically violent. We never know the whole story about other people's lives, but we have to realize that there is always an untold story that we haven't heard yet."

There were some references, at the sentencing, and in the probation report to Dyleski suffering some kind of neglect, abuse, and using drugs pretty heavy duty at a certain point in his life. But these references were brief, sketchy, and, in some ways, came in a last-ditch effort to keep him from the life without parole sentence.

If there were things in Dyleski's life, such as you describe, they should have come out in the trial. They didn't because the defense strategy was to say he didn't do it. I think they should have come out for several reasons. For one, he was a juvenile defendant, even if he was being tried as an adult. And he was facing life without parole. You know what, the United States is the only developed nation in the world, and one of the few in the world that sentences juvenile defendants to life without parole.
But the LWOP issue for juveniles is a whole other debate.

I'm guessing it would have been difficult for Pamela Vitale's family to hear any "poor Scott" kind of defense. (By the way, the way Vitale's parents, sister, and two children carried themselves in public at the trial were models of grace under excrutiating circumstances.)

At the same time, they might have gotten some information--and so would the community--that would have helped explain why this crime happened. I'm sure for many, "poor Scott" details would not offer any kind of excuse or "mitigating" factors to allow for a lesser sentence. I'm not saying we need excuses, just explanations.

Yes, you're absolutely right, psychology major, there is an untold story that we haven't heard yet. And maybe we never will, and I might be the only person who cares to find out.

Anonymous said...

write a letter to him and see if the kid will tell you.

Anonymous said...

Soccer mom, I have over 30 years in law enforcement and have interviewed about 2 dozen people who have committed homicide. I agree with your comment that the "why" often brings closure to the victims family, particularly if it is understandable, but as a young detective I learned early on, if you want a confession, never ask about motive, never ask the suspect why. Some times the "why" is obvious, crimes of passion, robbery, etc. Many times, the "why" is so terrible or repulsuve, the suspect cannot say it to another person. Standard proceedure is to give the person a face saving explanation for their actions, usually after enough interrogation they are willing to jump at any explanation that makes them look less monstrous than whatever the true reason is. Nonetheless, they will often admit to murder if the explanation is less heinous then the truth. In all the years I have been in police work I have learned that people are far more complex than we can ever understand, and even though any investigation should be a search for the truth, sometimes no one, not the victims family or the suspect or the rest of us could handle the depths of depravity that people can sink to.

Soccer Mom said...

Dear 7:09 p.m.
Thanks VERY MUCH for your insight, and your comment.

I actually know what you're saying, not from any personal experience, like yours, but from reading accounts of others who have worked in law enforcement, or who are experienced in forensic psychology or psychiatry. Yes, the "why" can be so shameful, repulsive, and terrible that the suspect would rather never admit to it, or the events in his life that would lead to such an act are also so shameful, repulsive, and terrible that suspect would likely never want to open up about it, even if doing so might help gain some sympathy or provide mitigating circumstances that would allow for some leniency in sentencing.

You probably know this better than I do, but it's my understanding that a fair number of people who commit some of the worst crimes grew up in pretty horrific circumstances and were victims of terrible physical or sexual abuse or neglect--things they would never want to admit. And their families aren't going to admit to any causing any harm. Even if these sorts of admissions could spare someone the death penalty.

I'm not saying this was the case with Dyleski. I don't know.

But what you said about not asking about motive or "why" is interesting.

Sounds like you should write something about that, not sure for whom, but I find your experience to be very enlightening.

Just Me said...

you really want to know more about Scott, go here

http://scottdyleski.org

Interesting that you have a pic of Scott that is not widely circulated.

Just Me said...

Why do you just say other are crazy conspiracy theorists. If you are a professional journalist, then certain you could have looked at the case and some of the evidence. You even imply it was superficial, but did you bother digging deeper - that's what we need journalists to do. You had an opportunity to learn more about the case, yet you choose to write a piece that is barely even researched. Why? You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see there was reasonable doubt in this case and to know that Daniel Horowitz didn't even care that Dyleski got an unfair trial. BTW, I've done my research on this case and I am not related to Scott either.

an observer said...

If people knew more of the facts and less of the media hype, it would paint an entirely different picture. Like "just me", I'm not related to Scott either, but have done my research on this case as well.

Savorist said...

Read Crime and Punishment... He's Raskolnikov. I feel terrible for the kid, and for Pamela Vitale and her family.

Soccer Mom said...

Interesting that you should mention Crime and Punishment. I have it by my bedside and have off-and-on been re-reading it lately... Don't know whether this applies to this particular case or not, but there are some things about Raskonolikov that are relatable on a very human, universal level.

Though, a lot of us wouldn't want to admit that...