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The Tainted Kidney


“And for this reason, your honor,” Cullen says, “you need to step down.”

Judge William Platt is not amused. “Your motion to recuse is denied,” he says.

“No, no, your honor,” Cullen insists. “You need—you need to step down. Your honor, you need to step down.”

“If you continue this, I will gag and manacle you,” the judge warns.

Cullen shouts over him. “Your honor, you need to step down!” he says. “Your honor, you need to step down! Your honor…”

The high marble walls make this court a beautiful room but a terrible courtroom, amplifying and distorting all sound. Cullen fills this room. The families wait as Cullen gets to speed-shouting his statement ten times, 30, 40. He’s not going to stop, and now the court officers are on him.

They pull a spit mask over his head—a mesh veil that keeps a prisoner from hawking loogies on his captors—but the noise continues. They wrap the spit mask with a towel and screw it behind his head and now Cullen sounds like a man screaming into a pillow. The families of the victims try to read. “You are a total waste of a human body.” “You are the worst kind of monster, a son of the devil.” But soon the sergeant’s hands begin to cramp, and chorus by chorus, Cullen’s voice gets clearer. Judge Platt nods, and the sergeant produces a roll of duct tape the size of a dinner plate, and tapes a big cartoonish X over Cullen’s lips, which does nothing. And so the victims read their personal statements, and Cullen screams his, like a nightmarish version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

“If my grandmother was alive right now, she’s say to you, ‘I hope you rot in hell, you sick son of a bitch.’”

“Your honor, you must step down. Your honor, you must step down.”

“Six more life sentences, served concurrently with those already handed down.”

“Must step down. Your honor, you must…”

And with a final “Such that you will remain in prison for the rest of your natural life,” the court officers frog-march Cullen—bound, gagged, duct-taped—into a waiting elevator. He is still chanting when the doors close. The silence that follows is terrible, too.

Afterward, the families huddle in the hallway, shaken and unsatisfied. “I think he intentionally meant disrespect to everyone in that courtroom,” says Julie Sanders, a friend of one of Cullen’s victims. Sanders stabs her finger toward the hole in the air where Cullen had been. “He says he is a compassionate man, that he wants to donate a kidney to save someone’s life. I needed to say something to him: Where’s the compassion now? Does he know what he’s done to our lives?”

Now what Mask and Roney had wasn’t a legal problem—they had a court order authorizing the donation from Judge Armstrong—it was bigger. “Basically, there’s not a lot of goodwill toward Charlie Cullen among the citizens of New Jersey,” Mask says. “Nobody wants to seem to be kowtowing to a serial killer’s requests. Some of the families see his donation request as a slap in the face. It’s like he’s asking them for a favor.”

After the scene at Allentown, Cullen’s kidney was simply too hot to handle. Roney would call the D.A.’s office, which told her to call the New Jersey Department of Corrections, who’d tell her to call the hospital. Months passed with no answers, no schedule, no deadline. If the donation was going to proceed, there were state and private institutions to coordinate, insurances to interface. The Corrections Department would need to guard Cullen in the hospital, against escape and vigilantes and, because he had already attempted suicide multiple times, Cullen himself. The only ones with real deadlines were Cullen and Ernie. Cullen’s donor test was valid for only a year; Ernie might not even survive that long.

And then there was the kidney, which would need to travel 125 miles from Cullen’s hospital in New Jersey to Peckham’s hospital on Long Island fast enough to keep it viable. Depending on traffic, that could be a bitch of a drive. A construction snarl or a fender bender or even a Hamptons rush hour could imperil Ernie’s life, but who was going to pay for a helicopter?

Ironing out the details would require a lot of hard, unpaid work by a great number of people, but at this point, Cullen was the last guy anyone wanted to do a favor for. That’s how they saw it, a favor to Cullen, not a way to save another man’s life. “It’s his choice, he’s a grown man, but realistically, the stuff he does in front of the victims’ families isn’t winning him any points either,” Mask says.


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