Can’t wait until the next episode of podcast Serial comes out? Here are five other true crime cases, where false convictions, unclear motives, and uncaught killers keep the rivers of justice flowing dark and murky. Hop on in, the water’s fine!
Ron Williamson’s mugshot.
1. The Conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz – A great primer for those not familiar with true crime, John Grisham wrote about Ron Williamson’s death penalty conviction for the murder of Debbie Carter in his first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. This reads like a Grisham novel, and doesn’t leave readers floundering for truth.
2. The Staircase Murder – Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s mini-series The Staircase follows the trial of novelist Michael Peterson. Sarah Koenig, Serial host and executive producer, referenced The Staircase as an influence for its style of revealing information. Peterson stands accused of killing his wife, who he insists fell down the stairs. Clear some time before you begin watching this eight episode series, as it’s impossible to stop once begun. Here’s Chapter One:
3. The West Memphis Three – Although this case has received a ton of press, I mention it because the original conviction depended so strongly on narrative over evidence, as did Adnan Syed’s case (at least it seems at this point).
While Adnan Syed was presented as a controlling Muslim, Damien Echols, Jesse MissKelley, Jr, and Jason Baldwin were presented as satanic adolescent rock and rollers. Echols was sentenced to death, and Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. They were all innocent, and West of Memphis is a great documentary about the entire ordeal, including suggestive evidence of the true killer. Damien Echols has also written several books.
The West Memphis Three mugshots.
4. The Long Island Serial Killer – For those seeking their own unsolved crime to puzzle over, Robert Kolker’s book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery explores the maddening details surrounding the Long Island Serial Killer.
In May 2010, a woman pounded on doors in the small community of Oak Beach, yelling for help. She ran from her driver, and wasn’t seen again. The woman was a sex worker, one of the most exploited groups of people in America. Where she went, why she was asking for help–all this is a mystery. In December 2010, four bodies in burlap sacks were discovered in the same area. Four months later, four more bodies.
Some of the mystery here comes from the location–the barrier islands of Long Island, and specifically Oak Beach, where the investigation takes place, are somehow tucked away from the modern world. Oak Beach is a marshy gated community, without grocery stores or gas stations. People who live here seek privacy, not the mass hysteria surrounding a police investigation.
5. The Jeffrey McDonald Trials – A true crime puzzle, I’ve found myself lost in this for months at a time. On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey McDonald, Special Forces Green Beret, physician, good looking and likable guy, makes a call for help. His two young daughters and his pregnant wife are dead, murdered in his home. What follows is a desperate and winding path towards an unknowable truth, as the army bungles and destroys evidence in his Fort Bragg home, McDonald himself insists a Manson-like hippie cult killed his family, and police set out from the start to prove McDonald guilty.
The murders and subsequent trials have spawned three major works of non-fiction, starting with Joe McGinniss’s notorious Fatal Vision. McGinniss embedded with McDonald’s defense team during his trial, befriended McDonald, and was given unfettered access to his home and his deepest thoughts. Although McGinniss reassured McDonald he viewed him as an innocent man, even after his conviction, he early on decided he was dealing with a psychopathic murderer. The journalist never revealed his dramatic change of heart to his close friend and subject. Ever. McDonald wasn’t given a copy of the book ahead of its release, and he learned of McGinniss’s true feelings during a 60 minutes interview.
McGinniss’s betrayal of MacDonald’s trust and the subsequent lawsuit were the subject of Janet Malcom’s The Journalist and the Murderer. It opens with the famous line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” This book has been mentioned in reference to Serial, and it’s applicable to the complicated relationship between Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig. At times Koenig sounds like an anxious lover, and there’s a huge amount of trust and delicacy surrounding their relationship and her choice to expose him at this level, as we all debate this young man’s life, freedom, like-ability and relationship to his faith.
Finally, Errol Morris goes through the evidence in A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. Morris is, as I am, constantly captivated with how narrative affects truth building in our world. An interview once called Errol Morris a forensic epistemologist, and I think that is his intention with this book, to break down and study where the knowledge of the case came from and how thinking patterns were influenced.
Morris doesn’t shy away from questioning why we think the way we do, in patterns that most of us consider necessary and natural. Although he’s analyzed truth in everything from photography to politics, the way we currently create narratives surrounding crime is a big interest of his. His first really notable documentary, The Thin Blue Line, was intended as a documentary about a forensic psychologist but ended up being a documentary about a man in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, thanks in part to the testimony of that forensic psychologist. Morris unexpectedly gets the true criminal to confess, and the unjustly imprisoned man’s conviction is overturned.
Errol Morris didn’t go into The Thin Blue Line looking to make that sort of documentary—he just realized he was dealing with an innocent man, and the rest followed. In A Wilderness of Error, Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or innocence isn’t a focus as much as the narrative which surrounded Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt. The police were fairly sure he did it, right from the start, and sought evidence to fit with their idea of the crime. This is applicable to Serial, as Koenig’s private investigator mentioned the concept of bad evidence, and the police’s intention of building a case. Morris argues that reality doesn’t work in this way, in which we can build a narrative which makes sense to us then pick and choose evidence to frame that narrative.
This attitude, a lack of narrative building surrounding the crime, is part of Serial‘s appeal thus far. There’s an appeal to a narrator who doesn’t know what sort of story she’s telling. In a world thick with story lines and plots, there’s a simplicity in going wherever the research takes you. It’s a refreshing change from our world today, where everything from sales pitches to crimes are wrapped fully formed like stories, bows tied and loose ends ignored.
Hopefully these true crime cases keep you busy until Thursday. Happy sleuthing!