When Terri Hawkins says she tried everything she could think of to get help for her son, I believe her. She even turned to me.
It was earlier this week, I think it was early on Thursday, Dec. 4. Hawkins called me at Isthmus, saying someone had suggested this. She told me that her son was in jail in La Crosse, in dire need of medical attention, which the jail authorities were refusing to provide.
Hawkins told me she had contacted city and county officials in La Crosse, begging them to take action; they declined to get involved. She said she had contacted every TV news station in the La Crosse area, also to no avail.
I spoke to her for about 10 minutes. The long and short of it is that I felt her story did not work for us, because it involved officials and institutions in La Crosse, and Isthmus is very locally focused on Madison and Dane County.
I also warned Hawkins, as I do everyone who comes to me with a story about the justice system, that there was some risk to seeking media attention. It was always possible that the people in the system would resent this bitterly, and take it out on her son. In this case, though, I felt the risk was minimal, because of the situation: She was a mother trying to help her kid.
Robert Hawkins Jr. of Mount Horeb was 25 years old. He was jailed Sept. 22 for his alleged involvement, along with three others, in a drive-by shooting. A gun was fired, but it's unclear who fired it. Hawkins was charged with being a party to first-degree reckless endangerment.
All I gathered from talking to his mother was that he was, in her opinion, desperately ill and in need of hospitalization. I've since learned that, while in jail, Robert Hawkins experienced severe stomach problems, high blood pressure, a chronic cough, and blood in his vomit and excrement.
I told Terri Hawkins there was something else she needed to keep in mind about media attention: It may not make any difference. Ordinary people -- the kind who watch the news and read the papers -- don't want to get involved in alleged miscarriages of justice. They don't challenge the decisions of sheriffs and other officials. If a mother says a jail is withholding desperately needed medical treatment, and the jail authorities say they are doing what is required, most people are going to accept what the authorities say.
The most common exception to this rule is for people who will purport to be glad that some scumbag in jail is being treated poorly, that he brought it on himself. I don't think I used those exact words in talking to Hawkins, but that was what I was trying to convey.
"What do you think I should do?" she asked me. I told her I thought seeking media attention probably would not hurt, even though it might not help. I said it was no surprise to me that TV stations weren't interested. It wasn't a sound-bite story. I suggested she try print media, specifically the La Crosse Tribune.
She asked me if I knew who to call there. I said she should ask to talk to the news or city editor. I realized I could probably track this information down easier than she could and went to the Tribune's website. I looked up the name and number of the paper's news editor, Keith O'Donnell; she wrote it down, checking the spelling. I wished her good luck.
I don't know for sure whether Hawkins called O'Donnell. I suspect that she did. She said she had done everything she could think of, and this was one more thing.
What I do know is that the Tribune did in fact report on the story. There is an article in today's edition, by reporter Anne Jungen. The story was also carried in today's Wisconsin State Journal.
It reports that jail physicians finally allowed Hawkins to be taken to a hospital at about 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, after his condition, by their account, worsened. Hawkins was taken to Franciscan Skemp Medical Center, which according to Jungen's story is "the same hospital his family and girlfriend said they fought to have him treated at for the past two months."
Robert Hawkins Jr. died at about 11 p.m. that same night. An autopsy is planned.
"He did not have to die," Terri Hawkins told the paper. His father agreed: "I feel that they let him die."
Perhaps we all did.