“Michigan, 1996. Nathan Harris and Christian McNeil meet in the parking lot between the Red Devil Restaurant and the Battle Alley Barbershop. It will prove the final moments of Nathan’s life, and it will prove the final moments of Christian’s life as he knew it.”
So begins Rossland writer Richard Kemick’s podcast “Natural Life,” a surprisingly honest, powerful and prescient bio of his cousin Christian McNeil, who at the age of 18 murdered a 16-year-old male in Holly, Michigan, Jan. 22, 1996.
“I have known that I had this cousin in prison forever,” Kemick told the Times. “I had always known about it, but as a family, we never really talked about it. Just because there was nothing much to say.”
McNeil received the mandatory sentence for first degree murder - Natural Life - which means he will spend his remaining days in prison with no chance of parole, probation, or presidential pardon.
The five episode podcast examines Christian’s everyday life in prison, through interviews with McNeil, his fiancee Bridgitte, and families of both the murderer and murdered.
Kemick first contacted McNeil, now 45, several years ago, with the idea of writing a book about his life, but soon changed his mind.
“Once I started talking to Christian and Bridgitte, his fiancee, I don’t know what I expected them to be like, but they were definitely not what I expected. Christian and Brigitte, how funny and compassionate she was in many ways, if I switched it to a podcast it would be great to include their voices without having to be interpreted through me.”
The unique podcast humanizes McNeil in unexpected ways. He is friendly, in love, accepting and happy with his life, content hanging out with friends, playing bridge and fantasy football.
“I interviewed him for four years, and then by the time we got to the spot where I said okay let me start recording these … I feel that we developed a meaningful relationship, and I feel like there is trust moving in both directions. Which is such a big reason why I wanted to include his actual voice to best convey his sincerity.”
Kemick wrestled with questions of morality and consequences of Christian’s sentence, what is just and unjust, and should there be a limit to incarceration, or is there justification in locking people up and throwing away the key?
“It seems so impossible to give an answer of what is a proper recourse when someone does something like that,” said Kemick. “And I wanted to explore that question a lot.”
McNeil will likely spend more than 60 years in prison, in a system that is functional, yet, mystifying in many ways.
The following is an excerpt from the podcast:
“Section N of the Michigan Department of Corrections Visiting Standards states: A prisoner is permitted one kiss and one embrace at the beginning and end of each visit. Anything more is forbidden. Conjugal visits, whether you’re married or not, have never been allowed.
“On the back wall of the visiting room hang backdrops for photos. You can choose between the Statue of Liberty, the 4th of July, the open ocean. The photos are two dollars each and are immensely popular, though not only as keepsakes. When a picture is being taken, a prisoner and his visitor are allowed one additional kiss, and a prisoner is allowed two pictures per visit. Six visits a month; two extra kisses a visit; a hundred and forty-four bonus kisses a year.
“There are more rules: prisoners are not allowed to interact with visitors who are not theirs, meaning when you visit an inmate, you are a ghost to everyone else, and the rest of the room looks straight through you.
“This, you cannot help but think, is what it feels like to be dead.”
Kemick is not advocating for prison reforms, his voice throughout the production is inquisitive, his prose penetrating, a delivery system that reflects the ‘reality’ of the incarcerated serving a natural life sentence with nothing natural about it.
“On some level, all of this is absurd,” said Kemick. “The fact that Christian did this terrible thing 26 years ago, and our answer to that is, ‘Okay let’s put him in a cage.’
“It’s difficult to see the logical follow through from that, and that this absurdity surfaces in other areas, where you’re only allowed to kiss at the beginning or the end of a visit, and for some reason not in the middle of it, unless you are taking a photograph, which of course costs a little bit of money.
“But at the same time, if you take that away, then what do we replace it with? We have to have some sort of answer, and it seems to be an unanswerable question in many ways.”
Each of the podcast’s episodes focuses on a different aspect of Christian’s crime and his ensuing wedding. The first episode focuses on Christian; the second, on his parents; the third, on his fiancée, Bridgette; the fourth, on his siblings; the fifth, on the surviving family of Nathan Harris.
Episode 1 of the podcast was released on Feb. 14., Episode 2 on Feb. 21, and Episode 3 Feb. 28. Episode 4 will be released Mar. 7 and Episode 5, Mar. 14.
The podcast was produced by Meteor Space Studios in Kelowna, with accompaniment from Edmonton musician Lindsey Walker. Kemick is also the author of I Am Herod and a book of poetry, Caribou Run.
You can access the podcast at naturallifepodcast.com or go to www.richardkemick.com for more info.