The case was apparently famous.  Murder was nothing new to Hawaii, but this murder had all the trappings of a major motion picture: desperate criminals on the run, a secluded tropical island, the mysterious disappearance of two innocents, and the eventual discovery of one of those innocents, dismembered and stuffed in a trunk.  Indeed, Hollywood thought so too, for a movie was made depicting the whole sordid affair: The Sea Will Tell, based on a book by the same name.

Despite the notoriety, I had never even heard of Palmyra Island until the night of my Criminal Law class in the Spring of 2009.  Our professor had arranged to have a guest speaker from the FBI come to our class and give a presentation on the events surrounding the death and disappearance of Mac and Muff Graham and the theft of their yacht, the Seawind.  The case sounded interesting, but I was just thrilled to take a break from trying to memorize the distinctions between the legal elements of burglary and robbery; however, I was soon transfixed as the details unfolded.

The saga began in the late summer of 1974.  Buck Walker, on the run from drug charges, fled Big Island authorities with his girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns, and three dogs on their rickety and poorly stocked “boat” the Iola.  Destination: Palmyra Island.

Though often called an island, Palmyra is technically an atoll.  It’s an uninhabited collection of approximately fifty islets and sand bars covered with various types of vegetation and trees about 1,100 miles south of Honolulu, about half-way between Hawaii and American Samoa.  The island was discovered in 1798 by Edmund Fanning while on route to Asia, but was given its name when a ship, The Palmyra, wrecked on the island in 1802.  In 1862, Kamehameha IV annexed the atoll to the Kingdom of Hawaii and thereafter was annexed to the United States with the Hawaiian Islands.  During World War II, the island was used by the U.S. Navy as an air station, and many years after the war in 1959, when Hawaii achieved statehood, the island was separated from the state and dubbed an “incorporated territory.”  In 2001, the island was designated a national wildlife refuge.  As of 2009, any sailors wanting to visit Palmyra must get prior approval from the Nature Conservancy.

Among the sea goers visiting Palmyra that late summer of 1974 were San Diego residents Mac and Muff Graham.  Mac and Muff were apparently planning to be on an extended voyage, for their yacht, the Seawind, was stocked with two years worth of supplies.  Unfortunately for Mac and Muff, they encountered Buck Walker.  Details about the growing tensions between the two couples and the murder trials that followed can be found in various documents, though in short, Mac and Muff disappeared, and Walker and Stearns were apprehended in Honolulu aboard the Seawind, which had been re-painted.

The speaker informed the class that several years after the disappearance of Mac and Muff Graham, the dismembered remains of Muff had been discovered in a trunk that had washed up on a Palmyra beach.  The trunk had been discovered by South African sailors Sharron and Robert Jordan in 1981, six years after Mac and Muff disappeared.  Sharron and Robert had been salvage-diving in one of the lagoons and found a sunken vessel with two trunks missing; the same type of trunk Sharron found a few days later while beach combing.  The trunk had actually broken open, spilling Muff’s skeletal remains onto the sand, the wires holding the box together still loosely clutching it.  Experts noted that if Sharron had not found the box when she did, the tide would have carried everything out to sea, which many speculate is what happened to Mac.

During the presentation, the speaker arranged a number of items on the table in front of the class room.  They were the old pieces of evidence used in the case: the trunk, the wires that bound the trunk, and Muff’s bones.  Typically, after a certain period of time passes, the FBI destroys old evidence, though due to the historical significance, they decided to preserve these items.  The FBI had offered to return Muff’s remains to the family, but for some reason, the family did not want them.

The speaker finished his presentation, and after allowing for questions, the class began closing their notebooks and murmuring to one another as they prepared to leave.  The first-year curriculum was quite harsh.  Most of us were already exhausted, but we were planning to meet up at the library to continue work on our Legal Practice briefs.  I made my way up to the front of the classroom to thank the presenter and to thank my professor for such a fascinating experience.  Before I followed my classmates out the door, someone called me over to the table where the old evidence was displayed.  I am visually impaired, so earlier in the presentation I had to imagine what they must look like, though as I stood next to the table, suddenly the plastic bag containing Muff’s skull was placed in my hand.  The plastic was cool and slick, and the item inside was smaller than I had imagined, slightly smaller than a cantaloupe, and very light.

Images began flickering through my mind.  I could almost see her face taking shape as my fingers traced the round orbital sockets and the contours of the small cheekbones.  Then my fingertips found the awful hole in one cheek, and the gravity of the tragic event settled over me.  For a moment, I was frozen.  In my palm was once a living, feeling, breathing human being whose life was cut short by the brutal hand of another.

All of my frantic concerns about  appellate briefs and trademark law were momentarily forgotten, and I stood there, nearly overwhelmed with a flood of emotion: awe, humility, sorrow, grief for a  woman I never met, a woman I had never even heard of before that night.  I wondered what kind of a person she was.  What her voice sounded like, what color her hair and eyes were.  Later that evening, while at my computer, I looked up Muff on the internet.  Her maiden name was Eleanor Lavern and she was 41 at the time of her murder.

The classroom was nearly empty.  Standing there, I suddenly realized that something inside me had shifted, as though a new and essential piece had clicked into the larger puzzle of my legal education.  I had spent so much time buried in rules and standards and legal analysis that the very reason for their existence had become distant.  Though standing there with Muff’s plastic-wrapped skull in my hand, the essential humanity of the law touched me like a mild electric current.  It was all about people.  The body of the law was created by people for people, to provide a mechanism for citizens to address grievances, to punish the guilty, to protect society in the fairest way possible.

Gently, I placed the skull back onto the table, and after a few perfunctory words of farewell, made my way up the stairs and out into the cool evening.  A slight breeze moved through the trees in the courtyard, a scattering of leaves tumbling across the walkway.  All around me I could hear the sounds of murmured conversation and the dull thump of dress shoes on concrete as students hurried off to their mysterious destinations.

Before I had even applied to law school, I knew the law was important.  I knew the law was powerful, touching every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the logo embossed on our laptop computers.  Though somehow, while in the raging fires of the first-year curriculum, my perspective had narrowed, and the human element had somehow diminished like an old, sunfaded photograph.  I thought about the cases that we read in our textbooks.  In each one of those cases there is a real person with real feelings and real dreams that is impacted by the outcome.  Perhaps it is best for some attorneys not to think too long or too deeply about such things, as the responsibility could be crushing.  Though for me, these thoughts refreshed my admiration and respect for our legal system and for those who are called to practice the law and those who are called to teach it to future generations.

That night, as I entered the warmly lit library and listened to the quiet, furtive movements of my fellow students scurrying about the bookshelves, I felt comforted, reassured by their presence, and grateful to the woman who reached out across time to remind me why I was there in the first place.

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The Skull in the Plastic Bag: A Law School Reality Check by Monty Anderson