In Western culture, we have proudly affirmed that justice is blind. The operative idea is that a truly fair arbiter does not focus on personalities or appearances but rather weighs real acts and assesses deep motivations. While facts and objectivity are critical for science, progress, and ultimately survival, it is good storytelling that is often what changes people’s minds and moves them to action. In an effort to remove part of the collective blindfold and see and hear what is happening with policing and law enforcement, I want to share some of the true crime narratives that have struck me because of both their complications and implications for fairness and justice to all in our society.
I recently watched the 2015 release of the documentary film The Thin Blue Line by Erroll Morris. Originally presented in 1988, the film told the story of the highly problematic investigation of the murder of a Dallas policeman in 1976. Four decades later, the movie remains a powerful testimonial about the concerns over human error and biases of perception in a serious criminal investigation. The idea for the film came about as an outcome of the director’s examination of a Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who worked on behalf of prosecutors in over one hundred criminal trials. Grigson had loosely come to be known as “Doctor Death” as a result of his overwhelming tendency to present the opinion that any defendant in a murder case was an incorrigible, sociopathic killer who should unquestionably receive the death penalty.
Apparently, Dr. Grigson challenged Erroll Morris to test out any suspicions or concerns the filmmaker may have had about his professional opinions by speaking directly with death row inmates. Grigson was confident that Morris, a former private investigator prior to his career in film, would find that interviews with any of his examined death row convicts would support that every one of them was absolutely guilty. Morris did exactly as the psychiatrist prescribed, and one of these interviews was with a Randall Dale Adams, convicted of that 1976 murder of officer Wood of the Dallas PD. Morris’s eventual film would reveal that multiple witnesses had apparently committed perjury and that key prosecutorial assumptions about the case were in error. The movie represents a brilliant piece of investigation that dismantles Grigson’s testimony about Randall Adams. In a recent retrospective interview on his film, Morris emphasized the importance of finding the objective truth of the crime—that it was not simply an intellectual exercise or a matter of one’s point of view.
Crime stories have held a magnetic appeal to us for centuries now. Maybe the oldest prototype of a crime story for many in the West can be found in the biblical record of Cain’s fatal attack on his brother Abel. The author Edgar Allan Poe is said to have introduced crime & mystery fiction with his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” followed by Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, and the appearance in 1887 of A. C. Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes. It was somewhat later when true crime captured the American public’s attention with the 1966 arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It was a brutal story of a multiple homicide in Kansas told with the creative and detailed touch of a gifted novelist—who became too close to both the story itself and one of the murderers. Capote chose to write about this particular crime and topic because he believed that “murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”
In 2014, the audio program Serial was born as a similar hybrid of journalism and cliffhanger storytelling to review the crime and evidence of the murder of a teenage girl named Hae-Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. Host Sarah Koenig’s dive into this case began with a simple appeal from a friend of the man who had been convicted of the crime when he was in high school. Koenig examines the who and the how of the case, including questions about a key alibi witness who was not called by the defense. Serial garnered a Peabody award for long-form nonfiction story and millions of listeners, and it was the beginning of a journalistic and legal sequence of events that culminated in the original murder conviction being vacated. After almost 20 years after the crime, a third trial is on the horizon for Adnan Syed, the defendant in the case. Unlike In Cold Blood, which was a story of certain malice, suspense, and gore, this case in Baltimore is a humanly uncertain story of violence for still hidden reasons.
It is true that a risk is present when a criminal case becomes a sensational story that captures the public’s attention. It is not intrinsically good for traumatic events to become entertainment. The essential tasks should be an honest effort to find out the truth about a crime and to treat victims and suspects with appropriate fairness and humanity. This is exactly the theme of one of my favorite episodes of a true crime podcast called Criminal. In an episode titled “Just Mercy,” attorney Bryan Stevenson is interviewed about his work on behalf of people on death row. He provides moving accounts of representing people who are down to their last few molecules of hope.
In an episode titled “Angie,” a murder case in Philadelphia, PA is presented from a police detective’s eye view with the unusual twist of an ordinary citizen—a young soccer player—deciding to get involved and help solve the case. This is not the tired story of “cop irritated (or outdone) by nosy civilian,” but rather a collaboration in which people coordinated their talents and knowledge to uncover the truth. Criminal was created by Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer to dig into crimes of every kind (including both prosecuted and unsolved crimes) from a variety of perspectives. The cases and personalities that they uncover are often mesmerizing, and the outcomes are rarely the paint-by-numbers results of TV detective shows.
Thanks to my wife’s recommendation, the most powerful true crime stories that I’ve encountered lately have been those on the ominously and aptly named audio series In the Dark. In Season 1, host Madeleine Baran and her colleagues examined a famous and tragic Minnesota kidnapping case that took place at the height of the so-called “stranger danger” concerns in 1989. In Season 2 earlier this year, the stunningly flawed prosecution of a Mississippi man named Curtis Flowers was uncovered. Using the techniques of classic shoe leather, muckraking journalism, Ms. Baran and her fellow APM Reports investigators examined this 1996 multiple homicide case that went to trial an amazing six separate times. At every stage of this case, unanswered questions and unacceptable problems are revealed. A common theme over the two seasons is the way in which sheriffs and prosecutors in particular are able to operate with too little oversight.
As the specter of criminal wrongdoing has risen in relation to the occupant of the White House in 2018, it reminds me of one more story that I discovered via the wavelength of podcasting. In January of 2017, just scant days before the swearing in of Donald Trump as U.S. President, the Reply All podcast posted a story of eerie events from a century ago. It was about a man who was as ambitious and amoral as one can imagine, exploiting a newly emerging technology to promote himself at any cost. His name was Dr. John Brinkley, and the episode, to which I hope you will listen, was titled “Man of the People.”
In 2016, I had the opportunity to go see some of my father’s songs performed live in the former Broadway musical revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Fort Worth at the Jubilee Theater. This venue tends to focus on African-American stories and casts. While I was in the audience, I made the acquaintance of a man a little older than me whom I’ll call Arthur. He was a great nephew of the highly accomplished blues musician and songwriter Willie Dixon. He grew up in Gary, Indiana in a neighborhood where the Jackson family and the actor Avery Brooks all lived in the 50’s and 60’s. Over the course of our conversation, he told me about his college age daughter who had just moved near Houston. Arthur mentioned that he had a cousin in law enforcement and said that he had asked this cousin to keep an eye on his daughter. He turned to me and said, “You know about what happened to Sandra Bland?”
I understood very well the reference to this woman’s experience and her tragic death. Every once in a while, a news story comes along and haunts me in an unexpected way. This one was one of those instances. In brief, during the summer of 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28 year-old black woman from Illinois, was driving in Prairie View, Texas when she was pulled over for a failure to use a turn signal. The Texas Department of Safety Trooper had tailgated her car (startling her and prompting her sudden lane change) and then pulled her over. After writing her a ticket, the trooper complained about her smoking a cigarette during the traffic stop, intentionally prolonging and worsening the interaction. The trooper ordered her to get out of the car. After he threatened to “light [her] up”—presumably meaning to use his taser, he roughly physically restrained her (citing her as resisting arrest), and she was brought to jail. Ms. Bland had come to Texas to begin a new job, but she was never able make it to this next chapter of her life. She could not afford the cash bail in order to be released, and after three days in the Waller County Jail and likely fearing that she had lost her waiting job and feeling humiliated, she took her own life.
The Trooper in question was later indicted for making false statements about his actions during the arrest, and he was forced to resign. In 2017, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act, which requires county jails to provide access to services for people with substance abuse or mental health concerns and requires the independent investigation of any deaths in county jails. What’s more, as a result of the family members of Ms. Bland and citizens and journalists who investigated her story and have continued to push for reform, the law bearing her name may be strengthened in the future to stop arresting people for Class C Misdemeanor offenses. When I think of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile (a Minnesota man who was pointlessly killed during a 2016 police traffic stop), I think that it is incumbent on us to provide more oversight and better training for law enforcement officers.
On the topic of the so-called war on drugs and the policing associated with it, after reading two books in particular, Alice Goffman’s On the Run (2014) and Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (2015), my objection to our federally mandated narcotics policies has been cemented. The United States has both the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. As a nation we have on the order of 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. Even if the percentage of people incarcerated for drug offenses is relatively low, our zero tolerance policies create a market in which the competition consists of violence and dangerously unregulated substances. The number of people behind bars does not sufficiently capture the harm that is done by these laws or their unequal enforcement.
In a piece published online by Harper’s in 2016, the writer Dan Baum recalled a stunning but perfectly logical and cynical confession from former senior Nixon policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman. In 1994, while responding to some wonky policy questions about Nixon’s rationale for his full-scale war on drugs, Ehrlichman told Baum the following:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black[s], but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Put plainly, bias and bad faith led to unconscionable policies. We have never had a comprehensive strategy to treat and reduce addiction, and so addicts become outlaws who face retribution, not necessarily justice, largely based on their demographics, position in the hierarchy of U.S. society and their personal net worth.
Another important avenue for examining our commitment to justice and our culture are the accounts of dedicated law enforcement professionals. One such stirring narrative can be found in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, the story of Ron Stallworth, who during the early 70’s became the first black detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Mr. Lee and lead actor John David Washington plumb both the historical context and present day relevance of Detective Stallworth’s efforts to root out the destructive prejudice of the local chapter of the KKK. The film probes assumptions and biases of many kinds and makes a powerful case for building real alliances based on our common humanity. The story manages to be bracing, inspirational, and troubling all at once.
At a time when objective news reporting is under attack by politicians both here in the United States and abroad, investigative journalists are providing vitally important profiles on how our justice system works both for good and for ill. In her brilliant, in-depth, two part story Blood Will Tell, reporter Pamela Colloff examines the murder of an elementary schoolteacher in the small town of Clifton, Texas back in 1985. It is a story about the twists and turns of homicide cases, surprising decisions by prosecutors and serious questions about the forensics that have become staples of criminal investigations.
We often overlook that stories of crime are typically cases of evolved impulses gone wrong. Our ancestors survived by engaging in a combination of self-protection, cooperation, reputation management, and risk-taking. Several of these modes of action can easily become violence or other transgressions. Despite the fact that policing is often political, the truth is that human society needs guardrails and well-trained responders to emergency. It is essential to have a philosophy and preparedness to face and put back into balance those whose impulses have gone awry. What may have seemed as an unreasonable focus on the flaws in our policing and our courts is also an appreciation of these things. Having high standards for how we treat accused criminals and victims also means valuing the difficult work of officers and investigators holding people accountable for wrongdoing. When we separate the stories that are true from those that are false, we are taking a step toward facing the human, criminal action and meeting it with real justice and life-giving compassion.
Some links for listening:
Season 2, In the Dark podcast, on the 1996 Tardy Furniture homicide case in Winona, Mississippi.
Just Mercy and
Angie from the Criminal podcast (Philly area folks: you may enjoy this one in particular for the local participants—despite the icky murder part)
Man of the People from the Reply All podcast
Serial, Season 1
Undisclosed, The State v. Adnan Syed (Note: listen after Serial)
For further reading:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2015 by Bryan Stevenson
Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection, 2015 by Johann Hari
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, 2014 by Alice Goffman
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, 2015 by Jill Leovy
Blood Will Tell, Part 1: Who Killed Mickey Bryan? by Pamela Colloff in the New York Times Magazine
and Part 2: Did Faulty Evidence Doom Joe Bryan?