When I first read about a local murder case, in which Rochester Institute of Technology professor Tim Wells killed his wife, I found striking parallels to the murder defendant Tim Ginocchetti, whose story I told in God’s Nobodies. Now that I have read Jerid Fisher’s book on the Wells case, Upside Down: Madness, Murder, and the Perfect Marriage, the similarities — and the criminal-justice issues they illuminate — are all the more remarkable.
Consider: meek, submissive men named Tim kill loved ones (Ginocchetti killed his mother, Pamela Ginocchetti; Wells killed his wife, Christine Sevilla). Both had lived law-abiding lives free of violence — so much so that they had bottled up their anger, only to see it uncork in a bizarre and tragic way. And both were dominated by strong women whose judgmental approaches bordered on, or crossed over to, emotional abuse at times. Suddenly, without any real warning or forethought, they exploded. Both intended to kill themselves after killing their loved one, but in that, as in so much about their lives, they failed. Both still profess love for their victims. In both cases, New York law came into play, offering a manslaughter charge as a reduction from second-degree murder on the basis of “extreme emotional disturbance” — a violent outburst whose explanation argues against the more cold-blooded motives in a murder. They’re serving their sentences (15 years for Ginocchetti, 16 for Wells) at the same maximum-security prison in far-northern New York, the old Clinton prison at Dannemora.
Though the cases diverge in important ways — Ginocchetti’s anxiety stemmed from his secret homosexuality and oppressive church’s role; Wells’ from his failures as a professor and inability to come clean with his wife about that; and Wells ultimately opted to plead guilty to murder — there’s an even more critical difference between these stories. As a journalist, I come to such a story as a reporter, independent of defense and prosecution, but in ways dependent on learning what they knew. Fisher, however, was the expert psychological witness for Wells’ defense. His gained access to Wells, other key characters, and the full prosecution and defense evidence files because of his official role. With Wells’ permission, he now has told the story from that perspective.
If Fisher’s book came off as an apologia for Wells, and if its writing felt amateurish, then the distinction would make a difference. But that is not the case. Fisher’s well-written narrative struck me as honest and complete. He points out Wells’ unattractive traits and history, and dwells on the meaning of the major differences between Wells’ account of the killing and the physical evidence. In the end, I find Fisher’s motive to be pure: to understand, but not excuse, the killing. As I have written often about Ginocchetti, that is a fine line to walk, but one that’s critical to understanding crime and criminals.
Fisher’s book owes a debt to journalists in that he relies heavily on interviews published by the local newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle, for accounts of Wells’ and Sevilla’s social life. But in all other ways, he proves himself a true writer in his debut book.