Novelist William Styron says his "heart went out" to Norman Mailer when jailhouse author Jack Henry Abbott was accused of murdering a waiter, because "I have had an Abbott in my life."
Styron said at an unusual writers' forum Tuesday in New York that, just as Mailer had encouraged Abbott's writing while the latter was serving a sentence, he, too, had a prote'ge' in prison.
Styron, author of "Sophie's Choice," said his prote'ge' was about to be paroled when he "bolted" and kidnaped and raped a Massachusetts housewife.
"I haven't lost faith in him," Styron said. "I hope to be able to walk through New York City with him some day soon."
Styron, playwright Edward Albee and others had gathered at a forum sponsored by the writers' association PEN and the Fortune Society, which aids ex-prisoners, to wrestle with the question of whether Mailer should have helped Abbott get out of prison.
Abbott, author of "In the Belly of the Beast," a critically acclaimed book on prison life, is on trial in the stabbing death of Richard Adan, 22, a waiter, outside a Manhattan restaurant six weeks after the parole that Mailer helped him get.
The moderator, the Rev. Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church, told the panelists that the discussion of "Writers and Convicts: An American Romance," was not set up "to castigate Mailer."
But the panelists kept coming back to the relationship between Abbott and Mailer, author of "The Executioner's Song."
Albee, calling Abbott's trial an "appalling circus," said a "purported quote" from Mailer that he took a chance on Abbott and lost had "upset me a great deal."
"I thought the waiter lost," Albee said.
Albee, who like Styron and Mailer is a Pulitzer Prize winner, said he also was disturbed by the "assumption made that if someone is a gifted writer he deserves . . . treatment above that given to other people."
It will be impossible to address the whole "concept of crime and punishment," the author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" added, "if we indulge in this particular kind of romanticism. It is the most deadly folly."
Myron Farber, New York Times reporter who was imprisoned in New Jersey for refusing to surrender his notes during a 1978 murder trial, read a letter Mailer wrote to the Utah parole board offering to give Abbott a job if he got out of prison.
Farber quoted Abbott as telling the parole board he must be given protection on the outside because he would not be allowed a weapon to protect himself.
"I don't think Norman Mailer ever really knew Jack Abbott," he said.
Edward Bunker, the ex-convict author of "Little Boy Blue" who said he could only earn a living from stealing or writing and hoped the profits from his writing would keep coming in, said he did not like Abbott personally. But he said he believed Abbott when he said he was "afraid" when he killed the waiter.
"He believed that guy was going to attack him," he said.
Katherine Perutz, novelist and founder of PEN's correspondence program among writers in and out of prison, said her experience of maximum-security prisons indicated they are "so dangerous that you can't incarcerate a man for 10 years or 20 years and ever release him."
With such "dehumanization," she said, it is "totally irrelevant whether you have talent. I don't see why Mailer should be getting the blame."
But she related one case that had a better outcome -- at least so far. She told of an ex-addict who left prison and returned to the street. She said he remarked: "Everyone else is shooting up but not me -- I'm a writer."
Meanwhile, inside a Manhattan courtroom, the jury in the Abbott case heard final arguments from attorneys on both sides and then began deliberations.
Defense lawyer Ivan Fisher told the jury that Abbott was under "extreme emotional disturbance" and "did not intend to murder" Adan. Prosecutor James Fogel called the slaying a "cold, calculated murder" and described the defendant as a "liar" with "important friends."
The jury was instructed by Judge Irving Lang to consider three charges against Abbott: second-degree murder or first- or second-degree manslaughter. A conviction for second-degree murder would carry a sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. A first-degree manslaughter conviction would mean a sentence of up to 25 years; a second-degree conviction, up to 15 years.
Outside the courtroom, Adan's family chided Mailer for his support of the defendant and denounced Abbott.
"There was great concern for Mr. Jack Henry Abbott's civil liberties," said Adan's uncle, Miguel Martin. "Richard lost all of his July 18 of last year. There is great concern for Mr. Jack Henry Abbott's future. Richard Adan has none to worry about. Jack Henry Abbott saw to that."