Posted on February 22, 2022

A Daughter’s Quest to Free Her Father’s Killer

Eren Orbey, New Yorker, January 17, 2022

Katie Kitchen had always felt some sadness about the fate of the man convicted of murdering her father. On a summer night in 1991, Robert Hans Kaim, a seventy-seven-year-old white real-estate developer, had just pulled into his garage in Houston’s upscale Tanglewood neighborhood when an assailant robbed him at gunpoint, shot him in the chest, and then drove off with his wallet. Nine days later, police arrested a twenty-year-old Black man named Joseff Deon White in connection with the crime. White told investigators that he’d had an accomplice, a Jamaican friend who went by the street name Blocker, but the police never found or even identified him. At White’s trial, Kitchen noticed his small stature, and the mothers of his children sitting on his side of the courtroom, crying. The jury reached a guilty verdict in forty-five minutes. On April 20, 1992, White was sentenced to life in prison. “All I could think about was how senseless it was for a person to throw away their life for a wallet,” Kitchen, who was forty at the time, wrote later, in her journal.

The Tanglewood home, where Kitchen grew up, is a mid-century-modern structure made of brick and glass. I met Kitchen there, in August, when she was visiting one of her two older sisters, Ellen Benninghoven, who moved back into the home a few years after their mother’s death, in 2011. As Kitchen unlatched a tall security gate, which the family had installed in the wake of the murder, she gestured toward the front entrance. “That’s where the police found him,” she said. When officers reached the scene, after a neighbor heard a commotion and called 911, Kaim was still alive. According to the Houston Chronicle, he had crawled to the entryway and was banging his head against the door in an attempt to wake his wife. An émigré from Berlin who’d fought for the U.S. in the Second World War, Kaim had an imposing build and a “huge German voice,” Kitchen said. Before he was rushed to the hospital, he told the police that during the robbery he’d refused to hand over his wallet. Kitchen, who was out of town that night and didn’t reach the house until the next morning, sometimes imagines that her father “scared the hell” out of White, perhaps leaving him no choice but to fire in self-defense.

Now seventy, Kitchen is white-haired and voluble, with a slight Texas accent and an understated personal style. Versed in the anti-racist precepts of such writers as Ibram X. Kendi, she calls herself a “white woman of privilege” from a “very segregated world.” During her childhood, a Black housekeeper, Willie Lee, cooked the family’s meals and lived in servants’ quarters Monday through Friday. Kitchen’s first husband, whom she married when she was nineteen and divorced shortly before her father was killed, was the heir to an oil fortune. Today, Kitchen splits her time between homes in Austin, New York City, and Snowmass, Colorado. With the exception of a stint as a waitress at a Holiday Inn, she has never had a paying job.

{snip} “I’m just so privileged that I can’t imagine complaining about anything,” she said. “We all lose our dads, right? Mine was to a violent crime, but, then again, it just shows that I am part of this world. If rich old white people keep putting themselves on taller and taller pedestals, sooner or later people are going to break down the walls.”

After Kaim died, Kitchen said, she finally “started showing up for life.” She travelled the globe, got a bachelor’s degree, and, at a hatha-yoga class in Houston, met a financial executive named Paul Kovach, who became her second husband. Kitchen was a liberal, but, as she wrote in her journal, she worried that “there was nothing I could really do to make a difference.” In August of 2014, she attended a two-day symposium, “Making the Change They Want to See,” at an arts center near Snowmass. One of the speakers, the artist and policy advocate Laurie Jo Reynolds, described organizing a successful campaign to shut down the Tamms Correctional Center, a notorious supermax prison in Illinois. “We are all bystanders to torture, but we don’t have to be,” Reynolds told the mostly white and wealthy crowd. Another speaker, Darrell Cannon, had spent twenty-four years in prison, including nearly a decade at Tamms, for a murder that he did not commit. Kitchen asked to sit beside him at a dinner after the event; she wrote in her journal that it was one of the first times she’d shared a meal with a Black man. Listening to Cannon discuss his incarceration, Kitchen felt a “deep-seated shame,” and she began to think of Joseff White. “What if he had become a good person?” she wrote. “Shouldn’t he have the right to be free after serving some 20+ years?”


In October of 2014, Kitchen called Mark Vinson, the prosecutor on her father’s case and one of only a few Black lawyers in the Harris County district attorney’s office at the time. During the trial, Vinson had described White as “a man who’d do anything to get paid.” Kitchen said that when she reached Vinson, who had retired, and has since died, he told her, “For the life of me, I don’t know why you would want to free that kind of a no-good man.” Kitchen then phoned the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and learned that White was incarcerated at the Darrington Unit, a penitentiary thirty miles outside Houston. A warden’s assistant at Darrington referred her to the Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division, which runs a program that facilitates meetings between victims and offenders. Only by “looking into his eyes,” Kitchen recalled the assistant telling her, could she determine whether White was “ready to be freed.” The notion baffled Kitchen. In her journal, she wrote, “How in the world could I make that kind of decision having only spent several minutes with the man?” But she suspected that participating in such a program would make prison administrators more likely to take her seriously, so she enrolled, and soon learned that White was open to meeting.


Kitchen met White on May 20, 2015, in a windowless conference room at Carol Vance, a few days after his transfer. As they approached each other, Kitchen’s “whole being was filled with compassion,” she later wrote. “I reached out my hand and said ‘Hi, I’m Katie Kitchen.’ ” They talked for four and a half hours. White described life in prison before his transfer, when touching other inmates was forbidden and guards routinely checked his rectum for drugs. He spoke of his four children—he later discovered that he’d fathered a fifth—one of whom had a child of his own. Kitchen said she hoped that they could one day visit schools together to share their story. White told me, “I expected for the white lady to be angry, to go off on me, but it was nothing like that. It was all love.” At the end of the meeting, he asked the mediator’s permission to give Kitchen a hug.

{snip} The week he was set to be released, Kitchen flew from New York to Houston, hoping to meet him as he left prison, but she learned at the last minute that the conditions of his parole prohibited him from having contact with her family. Instead, she hired a local filmmaker to record the first hours of White’s freedom, as he moved into his uncle’s home in Houston. Eight months later, after successfully petitioning the Department of Criminal Justice to waive the ban on further contact, Kitchen attended a ceremony at Carol Vance for White and other parolees. White took the stage last, wearing a paisley tie and a crocheted black taqiyah, which he’d bought, he told the audience, with earnings from his new job on an assembly line at an ambulance manufacturer. “Twenty-five years ago, I killed a man,” he said. “I’m here because the daughter of this man forgave me.”

Recounting this story, Kitchen sounded both proud of her efforts and embarrassed by the ease with which she succeeded. {snip}

Kitchen told me that she had been ready to hire “the best lawyer in the country” to secure White’s freedom. Instead, it had taken little more than a few phone calls. “What if I’d been Black?” she said. “If I hadn’t looked the way I looked, I don’t think they would have afforded me the same courtesy.” {snip}


One morning last August, Kitchen and I visited White’s house, in Acres Homes, a historically Black neighborhood in Houston. In the years since his release, Kitchen and her husband have sent Christmas gifts to White and have treated him to meals when they’re in town. White lives in a beige cottage resting on cinder blocks and surrounded by a chain-link fence. As Kitchen and I pulled onto his street, we passed a horse grazing on a patch of grass beside a modest church. From the porch of the house, we could hear a Bobby Womack song drifting through the screen door. White, who is fifty-one and stocky, with tattooed forearms, stepped out, wearing calf-length cargo shorts and several silver chain necklaces. “I really want to hug you, but I won’t, because of covid,” Kitchen said.


Before I arrived in Houston, Kitchen had told me that she’d never directly discussed the night of the crime with White, and that she didn’t want to be present when I broached the subject. But, as we drove to lunch, at a nearby New American restaurant, with White following behind, she said that she’d had a change of heart. During our meal—a patty melt for White, a Caesar salad for Kitchen—White spoke of his time in prison. During his first year there, a Muslim inmate had given him a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which led him to the Quran. “Once I started learning stuff, I just kept on going,” he said. He recalled his childhood, which was spent moving between Louisiana and Texas. At Yates High School, in Houston’s Third Ward, he’d been a talented football player, but he began missing practices to support his mother, a nurse’s aide who was raising him and his younger brother as a single parent. White dropped out in ninth grade and started selling marijuana. Later, he found work as a security guard but kept dealing drugs. I waited for an opening in the conversation, then asked, “Do you want to talk about the night?”

“I remember earlier that night. We were out drinking, smoking weed. I remember Blocker coming through,” White said, referring to his accomplice. “He was, like, ‘Hey, man, what you doing? I’m gonna come back and pick you up.’ And so I went home and got dressed.” Then White skipped past the crime, to the night of his arrest, after the police received a tip from his neighbor. “What I was going through was so painful. As soon as they got me, they put me in a cell by myself. I was dealing with trying to figure out what happened, and it was real hard for me. All of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Hey, man, you been charged with murder.’ I’m not one of those guys that came up in the ghetto and went to juvie and all that.” White’s mother was in the hospital, with ovarian cancer, and he worried about who would care for his brother, who was fourteen. “It was just crazy, man,” he said.

As White spoke, I felt put off by his focus on the toll that the crime had taken on his own life. But Kitchen was frowning sympathetically. “Were you surprised to hear that he died?” she asked him.

“I actually seen it on the news,” White said. “I think it was the next day. I’m, like, ‘Man, I know that house.’ And that’s when it dawned on me.”


According to court records, White claimed that he knew nothing about Kaim’s murder when he was first questioned by police. The next day, he signed a statement saying that he had waited in the car while Blocker robbed and shot Kaim. The identity of the gunman was contested in court; the murder weapon was never recovered, and there were no eyewitnesses to Kaim’s attack. (The Galleria, a glitzy Houston mall that Kaim helped to develop, offered a reward for information about the crime.) At the trial, the neighbor who’d provided White’s name to the police testified that White had shown him a gun and had described robbing an old man. “He explained that he told the guy to give it up, but the guy didn’t want to give it up,” White’s neighbor said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “He said, ‘You know, I had to get paid.’ ” White’s team appealed the verdict, to no avail. The appellate judge, in his decision, questioned whether the “mysterious Jamaican” even existed. Mark Vinson, the prosecutor, had planted the same suspicion at the trial. “You know who Blocker is, don’t you?” he asked the jury. “It’s Joseff White.”


Although Kitchen’s family members didn’t oppose White’s parole, some have found her friendship with him discomfiting. Kitchen’s daughter, K. C. Coats, a Realtor who lives in Austin, attributed her mother’s affection for White to her “childlike, innocent quality,” which she described with loving skepticism. “Forgiveness can sometimes really require distance,” Coats said, “because it allows you to accept someone for who they are, and they’re over there.” She added, “My mother hasn’t fully let the reality of what happened wash over her. She could have kept Joseff at an arm’s length, and it all would have been just as good.” Ellen Benninghoven shares her sister’s interest in criminal-justice reform. Before the pandemic, she volunteered weekly with a Houston-based restorative-justice program called Bridges to Life, which, according to its Web site, leads incarcerated people through a curriculum “centered on responsibility, repentance, and restitution.” But Benninghoven has never wanted to meet White, in part because she never got the sense from Kitchen that he was truly remorseful.


{snip} Like Benninghoven, though, I chafed at Kitchen’s insistence on ignoring the question of White’s responsibility. In her narrative, the murder was a terrible accident, and White, because of systemic injustices, had been as much a victim as her father. I admired that her mission on White’s behalf was an attempt to live up to her progressive ideals. {snip}


Kitchen began giving talks about her quest to free White even before his release. “I am grateful that only one person’s life was lost that night in 1991,” she likes to say. She and Jamal Joseph, a formerly incarcerated screenwriter who now teaches at Columbia, have discussed the possibility of a film adaptation of her story. Joseph, who is Black, told me, “I hadn’t heard a story like this before, with someone saying, you know, ‘Let me be active in forgiveness and help this person regain their life.’ ” Kitchen knows that some people might dismiss her as a “white savior,” or as a rich lady bent on centering her own racial and political awakening. {snip}


White clearly coöperated with this piece largely out of obligation to Kitchen. “Whatever she asks me to do, if I have time for it, I’ll make time for it, because I feel like I owe her so much,” he told me. Without Kitchen as an intermediary, though, White was hard to get in touch with. He works two full-time jobs, as an electrician by day, with his uncle, and as a security guard at night. After weeks of trying, I reached him one evening in October, over FaceTime, while he was working a shift in the parking lot of a hookah lounge in downtown Houston. A silver security badge gleamed against the breast of his black shirt. I thought that without Kitchen present White might share more details about the night of the crime, or even admit to the murder. Instead, to my surprise, he told me the same thing that he’d told the police the morning after his arrest: he’d been in the car outside Kaim’s house, but it was Blocker who’d robbed and shot him. “I wasn’t no killer, man,” White said.

He explained that he didn’t feel he’d had any power to tell his side of the story at the trial. Kurt Wentz, his lawyer, had chosen not to put him on the stand. “It was me, as a young Black boy, young Black man, whatever you want to call it, against the system,” White said. {snip}