Deputy District Attorney Chelsea Blatt addresses the jury in her closing argument. Her first words are:
“What you saw yesterday was not normal.”
I know. I was there.
The first abnormality appeared minutes before the trial began. Twenty-four high school students filed into the courtroom at 9:30 am, announced by their well-postured leader as members of UCLA’s mock trial camp. The boys wore sneakers while the girls tottered in their shiny patent leather heels. These brace-faced, bespectacled young adults were a shining example of professional courtesy. Their phones remained entrenched in their pockets and their lips restrained from whispering. I marveled at what a fantastic educational opportunity this event provided. It inspired hope for the future to see the wide-eyed next generation positively glowing with anticipation for the justice they were about to witness.
That justice was the trial for the most graphic and bloody homicide that I’ve ever seen presented in court.
Images of exposed brain matter, crime scene photos of a bloodied body in a bed of trash, and coroner’s pictures of a stab wound that tore all the way through the victim’s neck were all evidence presented in this trial. Photo after photo after photo: a collection that overwhelmed the viewer by the sheer magnitude of blood that could come from one person. It was a visual barrage of violence that could make the most firm-stomached inclined to vomit, faint, and dangerously flirt with the fringes of madness.
Twenty-four young hopeful faces went pale. Heels nervously kicked the ground. One young woman’s pallor took on a greenish tint. She stumbled out of the courtroom. I changed my mind. This was a terrible idea. Where were these children’s parents? What kind of permission slip did they sign? Did it mention homicide? Specifically did it mention this homicide — the one of Kenneth Dowell at a sober-living home?
On August 28, 2016, the defendant, then-31-year-old Justin Salmen, and 69-year-old Kenneth Dowell had an altercation that led to Dowell’s death. The two men were roommates at the addiction treatment center, Sober Clarity, and had a contentious relationship due to Dowell’s white-supremacist views. According to Salmen, Dowell claimed to have affiliations with the Aryan Brotherhood and boasted about having killed people for their cause while he was in prison. Salmen is white but his girlfriend was mixed-race. Dowell expressed his disapproval, a sentiment that fueled the brawl on that bloody evening. While the specific origins of the fight were highly contested in court — specifically whether Dowell attacked first with a pair of scissors — the outcome remained undisputed: Salmen hit Dowell in the head enough to cause a fatal brain bleed, and stabbed Dowell in the neck with a knife 10 to 12 times, leaving wounds which accounted for the utterly blood-soaked crime scene.
I was taking notes on an image of a blood-streaked floor when a courthouse acquaintance of mine slid onto the gallery bench next to me. He nodded at the squirming kids. “Are you with them?” I smirked. “No.” Then he leaned over and whispered “Did they play the tape yet?” I shook my head. “What tape?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ll see.”
And I did.
The tape was an interrogation of Salmen three days after the incident occurred, hours after he turned himself in to the Long Beach Police Department. Salmen’s disposition was highly agitated. Arms flailing, body twisting in his seat. His blonde mohawk jerked up and down as he nodded his head for emphasis. When the detectives asked Salmen about Dowell’s death he said, “I exterminated him.” Salmen’s speech was pressured, and he sprinted around the same points, repeating, “I killed him,” paired with a variety of expletives. He snorted and wiped his nose. It seemed like he was on drugs.
Salmen’s confession came out like water from a fire hydrant. The officers inquired about the knife. He responded, “I broke it off and flushed it down the toilet.” They asked about wounds around Salmen’s eye. He said he stabbed himself in the eye because he wanted it to look like an even fight. They asked if he tried to burn anything in the apartment. Salmen nodded. “Some blankets that I laid on top of him.” Salmen elaborated that the plan wasn’t successful because he tripped and got gasoline on himself, so when he lit a match his t-shirt caught on fire and he ran out of the apartment before he could finish the job. But Salmen insisted that Dowell deserved to die. He emphatically stated, “I did some righteous shit.” The detectives ended their interrogation, seemingly a bit baffled by the horsepower of the interaction. When they left the room, Salmen took off his shoes and lay down under the interrogation table, his face to the floor like a corpse.
Looking from the man in the video to the one who was seated at the counsel’s bench, I had difficulty reconciling the two individuals. The present-day Justin Salmen had close-cropped hair and a light-blue collared shirt. He diligently took notes and handed them to his attorney, Alternate Public Defender Sandra DiGiulio. It was hard to imagine that man behaving the way he did in the video.
But I didn’t have to imagine. He took the stand that afternoon.
Most of the kids were gone by then, many of them probably reconsidering their dreams of being criminal attorneys. That was unfortunate, because they missed one of the most bizarre testimonies I’ve ever seen. What spewed forth from Salmen’s mouth that day was a mix of incoherent babble and Haiku. Pure, obstinate idiocy that performed such mental gymnastics that it verged on the profound.
DiGiulio began her interview by walking Salmen through Dowell’s racist behavior. She hit an unexpected roadblock when she asked Salmen a seemingly innocuous question: “What is your skin color?” Salmen furrowed his brow and shook his head. He’s white but apparently he wasn’t inclined to give that information. The defense attorney asked directly. “Are you white?” He points to a large red tattoo on his face and a blue tattoo on his forearm. “I have red here and blue right here.”
Despite Salmen’s insistence on testifying, he was seeping with disdain for the whole legal affair. He worried about “subliminal messages” and “police tampering with evidence.” His responses were peppered with his suspicions of law enforcement’s “promotion-seeking behavior.” DiGiulio tried her best to pull out the story from her client — one of self-defense and cooperation with police — but her best efforts were met with a brick wall.
She asked about the race of his girlfriend. He responded, “Human.” She asked if he turned himself in. He said, “No. I walked into the station and said ‘I turn myself in.’” She encouraged him to speak about how he provided detectives with information. He said it wasn’t information. It was “just sounds with words.”
When Blatt, the prosecutor, stood for cross-examination, it was clear that Salmen was closed for business. He wouldn’t even agree that “the truth is the truth.” The farce culminated in a moment when the prosecutor showed a piece of paper with a photo of Dowell. “He looked like that, right?” she asked. Salmen balked at the question and pointed to the photo. “No. He looked like a living, breathing man. Not a piece of paper.”
The jury convicted Salmen of first-degree murder. I walked away from the trial unsettled. It was such a display of delusion and violence that I wondered what the kids learned from watching it. What did I learn from watching it? I want to wrap this trial up in a bow, to draw a larger conclusion that rationalizes the proceedings. But both the crime and the defendant are so irrational.
In her closing arguments, DiGuilio argued that Salmen’s actions were imperfect self-defense. Imperfect is how I feel about this case — not necessarily about the outcome but about my moral assessment of Salmen.
Salmen was raised in a black foster family. His girlfriend was mixed-race. He frequently voiced his criticisms of Trump. And Salmen clearly has some mental health difficulties — not enough to be seriously considered not guilty by reason of insanity, but enough that he has heightened paranoia and delusions. When I consider that kind of person being forced to live with a white supremacist — an individual who claimed to kill for the Aryan Brotherhood — I genuinely have sympathy for him. Then my stomach turns when I think about the crime. The stabbings. The brain matter. The blood. And I hate myself for having sympathy for someone capable of such horrific violence.
If you sit in court long enough it’s easy to develop a strong sense of black-and-white thinking. For practical reasons, the judicial system hinges on the binary: guilty and not guilty. But whenever I ruminate on justice outside of the courtroom, I’m reminded that morality is messy. People aren’t either heroes or monsters. We’re not just right or wrong. No one is wholly good or wholly evil.
And we aren’t either normal or not normal.