Malice is a state of mind. It is intent to harm. It is also reckless indifference for life.
Malice is hatred. It is also heartlessness.
1805 Madison Avenue sits on a busy block near Westside Covington. Tall brick row houses with scrappy front lawns flank the street and press up against the steady traffic. Doors hang open, exposing dim hallways. Children run from yard to yard on the safe side of the sidewalk. Families sit and smoke in plastic chairs.
On or around February 27, 2009, 14-year-old Emily Ball placed a call to her ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old Travis White, asking him to come over to her first-floor apartment at 1805 Madison. Shortly after White arrived, Emily left the house with her younger brother in tow, walked around the corner to a friend’s house, down the street past the Covington Police Department, and on to a park.
She left because inside her friends were beating Travis White to death.
Roughly a week later on March 6—Jim Lane, an employee at Jess & Sons Towing, ventured out toward the neighboring train tracks to a barren industrial back lot. He saw a large, red carpet rolled up on the ground with hair sticking out from one end. Thinking it might be one of Covington’s many homeless men wrapped up against the cold, Lane pulled back the carpet to wake the person. Instead he found the devastated body of Travis White.
White had been reported missing by his family on February 28. When Lane found him, his body was nearly nude, clad only in boxer shorts and dirty white socks. His jaw was broken and lay slack, reaching almost to his left shoulder and pulling his lips down over his teeth. One eye rested partially open, holding a stunted gaze. A long gash crossed his forehead where his skin had split lengthwise like an overripe peach. His brown hair was matted down with dried blood and his bloated skin was every shade of green, purple, blue, red, black, and sickly yellow-white. His arms were pocked with quarter-sized round marks that were nearly black from where his blood had pooled and thickened. Stab wounds covered his chest, back, arms, and legs. The swollen welts and cuts all but obscured Travis’s many tattoos: skulls on his arms and shoulders, a toadstool on his right arm; an ace of spades on his left leg; praying hands on his left arm. And then there were the carvings: malformed, illegible letters carved haphazardly into his chest and arm. His wrists were bound together with black bootlaces.
A few yards from the scene, toward Madison Avenue, there is a lot shared by the 1800 block apartments. Lying on the grass was a large wooden board streaked with a brown ribbon of old blood; nearby sat a mop and a bucket half-filled with a muddy soup of blood and bleach. A trail of little red carpet fibers led to the basement steps of 1805 Madison.
In a meeting room in the offices of the Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Assistant Prosecutor Jim Redwine calmly mimics the act of hitting someone in the head with a hammer.
“The blood flies off when you pull your arm back,” he says. The force of such a blow spatters blood in all directions. When blood moves that fast and hits a hard surface, the droplets split into three prongs, like chicken feet. The length of each “track” virtually records the level of brutality in a given attack.
Redwine is a tall, brawny man with a shaved head and a closely trimmed silver-gray beard. But for his sedate black suit and glasses, he wouldn’t be out of place in a motorcycle club. He crowds his frame into a swivel chair at the head of a conference table and absently plays with a wooden toy kept in the room for clients’ children. His police counterpart is Covington Detective Mike McGuffey. Next to Redwine, McGuffey isn’t a large man but he’s very fit, and possesses the telltale composed alertness of someone who serves in law enforcement or the military. Together, the two are reviewing their case against Emily Ball.
In March 2010, Ball pleaded guilty to first-degree conspiracy to commit assault, first-degree unlawful imprisonment, and tampering with physical evidence, for which she received a 15-year sentence. (Due to her status as a minor, she was unavailable for media interviews.) She is currently incarcerated at Morehead Youth Development Center, but her case remains pending because in Kentucky minors are entitled to a resentencing when they turn 18. Ball’s is scheduled for October 8, 2012. At that time, Kenton County Circuit Judge Martin Sheehan will have the option to place her on probation, alter the terms of her sentence (possibly sending her to a treatment center), or remand her to state prison to finish out her 15 years.
Redwine and McGuffey have already put White’s murderers—Brian Golsby and Kasey Dodson—in prison with life sentences (though the two men will be eligible for parole in 20 years). “It’s hard to explain how they tortured Travis,” Redwine says with a theatrical frankness befitting a trial attorney. “Here he is, he’s going over to see his girlfriend, and these two animals start attacking him. No human being needs to be that frightened. Sons of bitches, I hope they never get out.”
As for Ball, there is little doubt in Redwine’s mind that she wanted Travis dead. According to her own statements to police, she called him to the home with the full knowledge that Golsby and Dodson would attack him—that the pair were avenging her for some alleged abuse from Travis. (At one time, according to police, she told friends that White had raped her, but during interrogation she denied that and claimed that all he had done was slap her.) And although there is no actual evidence that she ordered his murder, this doesn’t deter Redwine from laying the blame for Travis’s death squarely on Ball’s young shoulders: “She went to two incredibly dangerous men and said ‘This man raped me. I want him killed,’” he says. “She was the match to the can of gasoline.”
Emily’s role in the murder sets the stage for this final clash in court, which the prosecutors see as a last chance to complete their vision of justice for Travis White.
Ball’s attorneys have done what all public defenders try not to do: They’ve become emotionally involved with their client. Amanda Jarrells Mullins handled Ball’s case from her office in sleepy Maysville, Kentucky; co-counsel Casey Holland is based in Frankfort. Where others may see a shameless, even evil girl—as the prosecution does—Mullins and Holland see a scared child who was in over her head. The attorneys quickly became attached to the tall, fair-skinned pre-teen with auburn hair and wide-set kewpie doll eyes. “She was just a young girl that [Golsby and Dodson] used to facilitate their own agenda to beat this kid up,” Mullins says. “Those two individuals are your classic bad guys.” Indeed, what Golsby and Dodson did to Travis White was unimaginably brutal, which is perhaps Ball’s best defense. “There’s no question in my mind that she had no idea of the extent of it,” Holland says. “The brutality of this shocked everyone. And Emily is no exception to that.”
Whatever her motives were for calling White to the home, Ball played an undeniable role in his slaying. She witnessed the beginning of his physical assault and left him alone with his would-be killers, walking past the Covington Police Department on two separate occasions while the beating was going on without seeking help. She returned to the house at 1805 Madison during and after the attack, saw White’s beaten body in her bedroom, and left again. Later, she acted as a lookout with her friend, 19-year-old Amber Goerler, while Kasey Dodson, Brian Golsby, and two others—friends Dale Eastman and David Thompson—moved Travis’s body to the empty lot behind Jess & Sons Towing.
Ball’s arrest was not her first encounter with the Kentucky justice system. According to a motion filed by her attorneys, when Emily was just 2 years old, her stepfather sexually abused her. From that date until she was arrested 13 years later in connection with White’s murder, the motion notes that the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) generated 15 child protective service reports regarding Ball’s family, including more sexual abuse; one case of statutory rape; and three open cases of neglect and abuse against her and her brother.
According to Mullins and Holland, Ball’s life with her mother, Audrey Gill, was never normal. The home was frequently without basic utilities such as heat and electric power; in one particularly Dickensian scenario, Emily and her siblings spent nights sleeping by a lit stove to stay warm. “She was thrust into inappropriately adult roles,” Mullins says. “This girl had little-to-no positive experience as a child.”
“Audrey would just disappear,” explains her sister, Rhoda Burke. Rhoda and her husband Bryan live relatively close by, but Audrey always kept them at a distance, refusing help and drifting in and out of contact. “We would tell her to call us if she needed money. But she wouldn’t,” Rhoda says. “She would be having a good period, working and all that, then, without a word, she would move and change her number.”
Rhoda and Bryan sit at the kitchen table in their two-story colonial in Independence, a neighborhood that they’ve called home for 12 years. The streets of their subdivision are lined with tidy young trees and two-car garages. As the crow flies, it is fewer than 10 miles from 1805 Madison Avenue in Covington, but the lives inside—filled with family dinners and college visits for their oldest daughter Sarah—are altogether different.
As I sit and talk with the Burkes, the stress of what happened to their niece is evident. Bryan appears agitated and desperately sad, wringing his hands and punctuating his explanations with shuddering sighs. He is frantic with nervous energy, and leans forward on his forearms anticipating his turn to speak. Rhoda is starkly quiet in comparison, sitting with her small hands folded in front of her. She speaks in short, hushed sentences, and patiently allows Bryan to interrupt when he can no longer stand the wait. Rhoda has an uncanny resemblance to Emily, and seems tired down to her soul. They’re both astonished by their niece’s situation, and half-blame themselves for not being able to do more in her life.
“I talk to Emily in detention sometimes,” Bryan says. “She’s more normal now than she’s ever been. If we could have rescued her…” He pauses here to let out the sob that he’s been swallowing back for 20 minutes. Whenever he stops talking long enough to let the facts settle in his mind, a new horrible realization drifts across his face like a dark cloud on an open field. He quickly collects himself and launches back into a breathless description of their experience. “I told Audrey. I told her a million times. She had no business having kids.”
According to the Burkes, who now have custody of Emily’s younger brother, they are paying the rent on an apartment for Gill but she has continued her transient lifestyle. Attempts to contact her for this story were unsuccessful.
Despite what Ball’s attorneys called Gill’s “inability or unwillingness to protect” her children from the men in her life, she retained primary custody of Emily and her siblings until 2009. On February 23—just a few days before White was murdered inside her apartment—Gill was arrested on charges of endangering the welfare of a minor for tolerating a sexual relationship between her 14-year-old daughter and 18-year-old Jonathan Haar, whom Gill had allowed to live in the home after he agreed to pay the utility bills. In a stunning oversight by the CHFS, Emily and her younger brother were never placed in adult custody following Gill’s arrest; rather, they remained in the home under the supervision of Kasey Dodson, who had been living there for a few weeks. “If the Cabinet had immediately initiated some kind of removal proceedings, would Travis still be alive today? We have no idea,” Ball’s attorney Amanda Jarrells Mullins says. “But things would not have gone down the way they did.”
Numerous attempts to speak to representatives at CHFS for this story were deflected or ignored; in fact, on more than one occasion, Communications Director Jill Midkiff claimed no knowledge of the case, despite the brutal nature of the crime, the involvement of multiple minors, and the family’s well-documented 12-year history with the office.
The Cabinet was even less helpful to Ball’s attorneys. Building a defense required an in-depth look at Ball’s abused and neglected childhood, but Cabinet officials would not cooperate with records requests. “They of course wouldn’t talk to us,” Mullins says. (Because the case never went to trial, the defense team never pursued a court order for Ball’s records.)
“I honestly can’t say if the Cabinet is trying to cover for themselves or if it’s simply the fact that they’re overworked,” Casey Holland adds. “But they don’t know what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. As public defenders, Amanda and I can certainly sympathize. We’re overworked and underpaid, too. But there’s a minimal level of competence that you expect from social services organizations. And I don’t think we saw it here. I’m not laying the blame for this brutal crime at their feet, but I think they bear some responsibility there.”
Assistant Prosecutor Jim Redwine isn’t so diplomatic. Even though his legal goals are to send Ball to state prison, he still can’t let the Cabinet off the hook. “The CHFS and the social workers involved in this case have a lot of explaining to do,” he says. “In my opinion—and this is the opinion of Jim Redwine, not the opinion of James T. Redwine Assistant Commonwealth Attorney—CHFS didn’t do their job.”
Once police confirmed that the body behind Jess & Sons was that of the missing 17-year-old, they began their investigation by examining his cell phone records, noting numerous concerned calls from family and friends throughout the previous week. One number in particular placed a call to White’s phone on the day he went missing. “That number stopped appearing after that day,” says Covington Police Detective Mike McGuffey. “They already knew where he was.”
Investigators traced the number to Audrey Gill at 1805 Madison Ave., and learned that the phone belonged to her daughter, Emily Ball. Police cut short their neighborhood canvassing to run down the promising lead. “We knocked on the door to ask for Emily, and as soon as Dodson opened it, the smell of blood rushed out of that house,” McGuffey says.
The home told two appalling stories: a single, ruthless attack mapped onto a scene of cumulative poverty, neglect, and despair.
When police entered the apartment later that day—more than a week after the killing—blood still splattered the walls and ceiling, was still ground into the painted wood floor. There were still bloody footprints leading out of the front room and a pool of blood in the basement. A blood-soaked T-shirt fitting the description of the one White had last been seen wearing was also recovered; it was pitted with inch-wide slashes.
The home told two appalling stories: a single, ruthless attack mapped onto a scene of cumulative poverty, neglect, and despair. Roaches crowded around half-eaten food on the floor. Garbage and dirty clothes blocked the hallways. The doors had been all but dismantled; many had no knobs, and one looked as if it had once been ripped open, its raw wood splintering from the handle. Ball’s room—where Travis was killed—had virtually no furniture except for a grimy uncovered mattress laid chaotically on the floor, piled with clothes and schoolbooks. Nearby was a desk overflowing with her belongings: two or three cheap cell phones, nubs of crayons, dirty cotton swabs, three kinds of deodorant, tangles of jewelry, a photo of an infant. Sheets hung over the windows. A large, cloudy mirror sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, a stuffed animal sticking out from behind its frame. Graffiti was scrawled on the walls and doors as if they were bathroom stalls. Emily and her family had been living in the apartment for approximately one month. She and her brother were removed from the home that day and taken to the Covington Police Department for questioning.
“She never cried,” says McGuffey. “I never got the impression she thought she did anything wrong.” In her interrogation with police, Ball first tried to distance herself from the attack, saying that Golsby had become angry when he heard that White had hurt her, and had taken matters into his own hands. She danced around the truth for hours, incrementally revealing her role in the beating, occasionally contradicting herself. Eventually, she told McGuffey that she knew White was going to get beat up, but didn’t know they were going to kill him.
According to McGuffey, while he briefly stepped out of the interrogation room, Ball casually arranged her belongings on the table. Like many teenage girls, her small, dingy purse was filled with a drug store’s worth of beauty products. She removed the cap from a plastic bottle of perfume, spraying it under each arm, down her back, and between her legs. She applied lip-gloss without a mirror, and unwrapped a cough drop. McGuffey struggles to explain what he saw when he returned to the room. “It’s almost like when I came back in, she tried to…I won’t say she came on to me,” he says, “but she tried to play that she’s a girl. That’s all she knew to do.”
There were other moments during the interrogation when Ball was unmistakably a child. McGuffey recalls that, left alone in the room at another break, Ball commenced to crack each knuckle twice and sing snippets of pop songs loudly to herself. She filled the silence of the empty cement-block room with a near-constant fidgeting, punctuating it with wet, throaty, sniffs—not from any apparent distress, but rather from a dreadful cold that had her bleating out coughs, blowing her nose for minutes at a time, and aggressively rubbing her nose up and down in the way that kids often do.
The greatest challenge for Ball’s defense team in her upcoming October 8 resentencing is to navigate this gulf between Emily the girl and Emily the woman. They must ultimately explain how her situation affected her decisions. Part of this approach is to deal with her outward coldness, which they see as a symptom of her immaturity at the time and even her inner turmoil—yet another indication that she shouldn’t be held to the same standard as an adult. “This has been yet another in a ridiculously long series of horribly traumatic events for her,” Holland says. “She still has nightmares about it to this day. If she doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder just over what she saw, then there’s no such thing as PTSD.”
As for one of the more incriminating facts of the case—that Ball twice walked past a police station while her friend was being murdered—Mullins and Holland have an answer there as well. “When you know her history, you understand why she wouldn’t go call the police,” Mullins explains. “The police or the Cabinet had, 15 other times, not done anything to protect her. So why all of a sudden would she think that the police are going to help her? The only thing she could think was, These two guys are going to do the same thing to me if I say a word. So she was just terrified and she acted based on her experience.”
With the information collected from Ball’s interrogations, the Covington police were able to piece together the events surrounding White’s murder. They soon had enough information to detain Brian Golsby and Kasey Dodson, along with Dale Eastman, David Thompson, and Amber Goerler, the three friends who had helped move White’s body. No one person ever gave up the whole narrative, but they each gave up enough to sink the entire group.
Dodson, who was passing through Covington on his travels to his home in Dallas, Texas, never budged from his story, which he later explained to me—without a trace of emotion—in a holding cell at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. He was a friend of Gill’s, had been “helping with the kids” when she went to jail, and he had attacked White as a follow-up to an earlier skirmish. “I was the first one to swing,” Dodson says. “Other than that, I didn’t do nothing else.”
White and Dodson had first fought on Valentine’s Day and according to Dodson’s story, White had issued a threat to finish the job next time he saw him. Dodson even suggested that he was almost a victim of the situation—that he had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Now 25 years old, he is small but stocky, with a blank, expressionless face, and seems unconcerned about explaining the illegal gang activities he has been involved in throughout his life, stripping his sleeves during our interview to show off the relevant tattoos. When I asked if he had ever killed someone, he grinned and said, “No.”
Golsby, on the other hand, was a local 28-year-old with a long history of petty crime; he now serves his 20-year sentence in the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, where he is confined for unknown reasons to a segregated population that is unavailable for media interviews.
When he was interrogated by police, Golsby dodged the truth until his lies became pathetically obvious. He claimed not to know Travis White, or even recognize the name, and said that he hadn’t been at Ball’s home since Audrey Gill went to jail. After about an hour, he admitted that he was there on the day of the murder and had been “asked to help move” a red carpet, but maintained that he had no idea what was wrapped up in it. A few minutes later, he amended his story again, admitting that he was present for White’s murder, but played no role beyond acting as lookout and lifting Travis’s shoes off of his dead body. When detectives asked what those shoes looked like, Golsby raised his foot up to eye level: He was wearing them. He’d also begun using White’s phone, replacing the SIM card with his own and passing it around among his friends, including Ball. Finally, Golsby provided—in sickening detail—the most comprehensive version of the attack.
According to Golsby’s videotaped interrogation, when White arrived at 1805 Madison that day to see Ball, he and Dodson were waiting for him. Dodson seized White’s neck from behind and Golsby started kicking his knees and groin. Once the beating had commenced, Ball went to her mother’s room, got her brother, and left the house.
In the video, Golsby seems amused when he tells the police that White would still be alive if he simply hadn’t panicked. When they grabbed him, he first tried to run out of the house. If he had succeeded, he would have certainly escaped with his life—it was broad daylight on a busy block, and Golsby and Dodson had no intention of chasing him out into the street. But in his terror, White passed the door and ran into an interior bedroom, where he was trapped.
Golsby said to police, almost admiringly, “I told him that I gave him a lot of credit because he did fight for his life.”
Over the next several hours, Golsby and Dodson took turns beating him mercilessly with a bat, a hammer, and a huge pipe wrench. They stabbed him approximately 42 times across his body—16 times in his back alone—and punctured his lungs and heart. When the kitchen knife broke off in White’s leg, Golsby switched to a butcher knife. The assault dragged on in part because White—who was just under five-foot-nine and weighed more than 200 pounds—fought back. Golsby said to police, almost admiringly, “I told him that I gave him a lot of credit because he did fight for his life.”
When the beating was over, the pair decided to teach White one last lesson. Into his chest, they carved a ragged “B” and “C.” (Golsby said he carved the “B” and then Dodson added the “C.”) Golsby and Dodson both claim membership in the Los Angeles–based Bloods and Crips gangs, respectively. Dodson also claims to be a part of a Chicago-based gang called Folk Nation. Both legal teams doubt the veracity of their associations with such high-level gangs; they believe that Golsby and Dodson were simply playing at gangland violence and that this mentality upped the ante on the attack.
“When kids pretend to be in gangs, it’s just as dangerous and just as scary,” Mullins says. “They want to go out of their way to show that they’re mean and bad, so they try to out-do each other. I think that’s what happened here.”
As it turns out, Ball was wearing an ankle monitor on the day of the murder (for habitual truancy), which is how the police know that she returned once to the scene of the crime, where she found White beaten beyond recognition on her bedroom floor. McGuffey says that Golsby asked Emily if she liked what he had done. She claimed she was horrified, said no, and left again. She told police that Golsby had a knife that was covered in blood, and the sight of it made her sick on her way to a friend’s house.
On the interrogation video, Golsby’s voice is monotone—almost bored—and his account of the afternoon diverges slightly from Ball’s: “He was begging for his life, not to kill him and all that,” he says. “Emily came back, asked if it was done, and I said no. [Travis] asked if he could talk to Emily. She said ‘No.’ He started screaming again. Emily left.”
Golsby also calmly related one of his final, hideous conversations with White: “I asked him, ‘Are you Christian?’ and he said ‘Yes, but I haven’t prayed in a long time.’ I said ‘You might want to be forgiven for your sins, because you might not make it through the night.’ ”
When they had finished with White, Golsby and Dodson wrapped his body in a blanket, and dragged it down the first floor steps to the fieldstone basement. Astoundingly, after several hours of brutality, White was still breathing. It was in that basement where he finally died, either from the massive blood loss or from slow suffocation caused by his shattered jaw. As he lay in the frigid basement, his own blood trickled through the floorboards and over the pipes above him. The next day, the two brought in David Thompson and Dale Eastman to help with the particulars of removing the body. It was still too light to move it, so the four men went to play basketball while they waited for nightfall.
When it came time to move White’s body, Ball and Amber Goerler—Thompson’s girlfriend—took up positions out front to watch for police. The four others wrapped White in a length of scrap red carpet, crammed his body into a City of Covington trash can, wheeled it around the corner to the lot behind Jess & Sons Towing, and dumped it—where it lay for a week until Jim Lane pulled back the carpet.
Goerler, Thompson, and Eastman were all arrested and charged with tampering with physical evidence. Both Goerler and Thompson received five-year sentences (Goerler was paroled in April 2011 and then re-arrested later that year for violating the terms of her parole). Eastman received a sentence of three years and six months; he was released after serving one year and 46 days.
According to Ball, Golsby was an ex-boyfriend—14 years her senior—with whom she’d had a pregnancy scare. She had ended their sexual relationship the previous December but he remained in her life, often spending the night at the apartment and claiming to friends that she was pregnant with his child. Much of Ball’s connection with Golsby was based around a shared fixation with vampires—Golsby even admitted to police that he considered Emily to be his “vampire wife,” and that Goerler and Thompson were “family members.” These details initially provided theories for those trying to comprehend the extreme violence of the beating—the term “blood fetishism” was thrown around on various crime watch websites—but they played a negligible role in the prosecution’s case.
As for Dodson, Ball considered the 21-year-old to be her boyfriend at the time of White’s murder, even sending him a love letter after the attack. (Dodson continues to deny that he ever had any sexual contact with Ball.) Later she told detectives that she was afraid of him. When Detective McGuffey asked her why she didn’t go to police on the day that White was attacked, she told him she was worried they might kill her too. For Ball, fear and love are two sides of the same coin.
Under strict supervision at the treatment-focused Morehead Youth Development Center, Ball’s record of good behavior suggests growth, recovery, and a chance at a decent life. She is completing coursework to receive her high school diploma, her grades have improved dramatically, and her attorneys brandish a stack of Honor Roll and other recognition certificates. “There’s no denying that she is making substantial progress,” Prosecutor Redwine concedes. “She’s being treated like a human being.”
For Mullins and Holland, Ball’s progress in detention might be her saving grace: “She’s positive about what she wants to do when she gets out; she still wants to try to go to college,” Mullins says. “I don’t know if that will ever happen for her, but the fact that she can still see her future and try to envision a better life is amazing to me.”
At the resentencing this month, Mullins and Holland are hoping for the best and banking on the judge’s willingness to take a holistic look at Ball’s life and decisions. “How could you just ignore volumes of horrendous abuse that she incurred?” Mullins asks. “How is that not relevant? And how does that not weigh on your mind at night when you’re trying to decide the best way to resolve this case?”
For even the most cynical of observers, these sincere questions from Ball’s supporters are what form the heart of this case. Emily Ball was subjected to a violent, neglected life. Travis White was subjected to an exceptionally brutal death. Ball committed her crimes at the edge of adulthood; she will have the chance to atone and move on. White won’t.
“She is the reason why my grandson is dead,” Karen Girdler says firmly over the phone. “And I don’t think she should ever get out. Ever. Ever.”
White lived his own version of parental neglect, though he managed to land in the arms of a devoted grandmother. According to Girdler, “his father never claimed him,” so she raised him from the age of 9. “For all the stuff that he’s been through, he should have been a hoodlum,” she says. “And he just wasn’t. He was a very good person; he always answered his phone if I called. He never had much self-esteem, but he was the peacemaker—he tried to smooth out everything.” When I asked what Travis had planned to do with his life, Girdler could only think of him as the very young man that he was. “At that age, he was just finding himself,” she says. “He was just coming into himself.”
Though Redwine will freely admit to Ball’s “brutish and difficult life,” he points first to her reckless choices and then to the horrific consequences. “Right now she is in a supportive, nurturing environment, which is designed to rehabilitate as well as punish,” he says. “But the point is that, but for Emily Ball—but for her—Travis White would be alive. At some point, Emily, you just need to be punished. And at 18, she’s going to go to prison. And prison’s not treatment. It’s not holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s fucking prison. And I think that’s OK.”
In English common law, the font of a great deal of American legal language and thought, there is a phrase that describes the true source of malice: “an abandoned and malignant heart.” It has an eerily poetic ring. Such language distills a malicious action down to its emotional meaning. For whatever reason, Kentucky’s murder and assault laws do not mention malice. Rather, the acts that led to Emily Ball’s conviction are spelled out in more exacting detail: “extreme indifference to the value of human life…wantonly engag[ing] in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another.” These are her crimes. But the law does nothing to explain the source of her indifference.
Writing off Emily Ball as an evil, depraved person is the easy way out of that problem. The harder work begins when her actions are viewed within the context of her age and desperate circumstances. As destructive as they were, Ball’s decisions that day weren’t made in a vacuum. They were made in a storm of ignorance and suffering that surrounded her young, sad life and destroyed another.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue.
Editorial update: On December 20, 2012, Emily Ball received a five-year probation on the condition that she enroll in a 24-month inpatient substance abuse and mental health program.
Editorial update: On March 17, 2014, Emily Ball’s probation was revoked and she was sent to prison to serve the remainder of her 15-year sentence. She will be eligible for parole, though it’s not clear when that might happen.