Category Archives: Crime narrative

Prison buildup: the documentary

crimereportThe Crime Report today published my Q&A with Regan Hines, director of a new documentary on the massive expansion of America’s prison population. The film, Incarcerating US, traces the history of sentencing policy since the 1970s, laying most of the blame for that on war-on-drugs policies like mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

In my interview, I challenge Hines’ thesis, ask why he told the story the way he does, and question why the film is more a work of advocacy than journalism. But don’t let my skepticism suggest that I disliked the film. To the contrary, I thought it was deeply affecting and powerful, especially scenes in which inmates speak to their children through a camera provided by a service that delivers video messages home.

Starting today, Incarcerating US is available for downloads and is showing in select theaters in the coming months (the film’s website has the details). Here’s the trailer:

“I know what I’d do”

Not many people would imagine themselves doing what Linda White has done after losing a child in a violent crime. It’s perfectly natural to imagine taking revenge against the killer, or at the very least seeking his permanent removal from society.

And so one key point of my recently published story about White was to explore her reasons for moving from that typical starting point to a much different place. Her radical form of forgiveness for Gary Brown, one of two 15-year-olds who abducted, raped, and killed White’s 26-year-old daughter Cathy O’Daniel in 1986, did not happen by magic or fluke. It was a process. The story walks the reader through that years-long process — which famously culminated in a mediated encounter in prison in 2001 — and then observes as the two meet again, in 2014, at my invitation.

Another key point was to take what we see in White’s experience and place it in a broader context. As I attempted to show in the story, ignoring or marginalizing the Linda Whites of the crime-victim world has had a perverse effect on public policy and opinion. We like to say that we support crime victims, but in reality we want them to fit our preconceived notions of victimhood. All too often, we don’t truly listen to victims to discover the full range of who they are and what they need. We don’t pay enough attention to their journeys as their reactions change, from anger to questioning to various forms of letting go — which is, fundamentally, what forgiveness is all about. It’s certainly not the only way to come to terms with a traumatic injury and loss, nor should it ever be imposed on victims who aren’t ready or never will accept it. But it exists and should be understood for what it is: an important part of the victim experience.

So it was no small irony that many of the hundreds of comments that readers posted to that story not only rejected White’s views, they didn’t even try to listen to them. Many expressed disdain or revulsion toward White. One I saw even wished that Brown would kill White to prove to White how wrong she is (it was at that point that I decided to stop reading the comments for a while). It was evident to me that many commenters merely saw the headline and a photo of White and Brown smiling together and promptly reached their verdict on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. In other words, a story about how we don’t listen closely enough to all victims produced an outpouring of the same.

A public weaned on ideologically driven opinions masquerading as news is comfortable reaching snap judgments without doing the hard work of exploring, sifting through facts, weighing evidence-based arguments. It also isn’t clued in to the distinction between empathy and sympathy; between understanding others, even those with whom we disagree, and blanket endorsements. Why can’t we read about someone who contradicts our assumptions and accept that the world is more complicated than we knew? Instead, many reject it out of hand, and ascribe bad motives to the story subject, the writer, or both.

I was wrestling with all of those reactions to my story when I read this recent Columbia Journalism Review article by researchers Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip, and David Uberti. They describe their work in seeking to understand how journalistic narrative evokes empathy, and how that might change when the narrative is read online rather than in print. They write:

We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us.

Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative. In magazine journalism, this makes perfect, intuitive sense. We know that longer narratives with complex characters and strong storylines can have a deep impact on readers who take the time to read from start to finish.

That is why my stories about crime victims — the one on Linda White is the first in a series — are told as character-driven narratives rather than as policy-argument essays. I can tell you, as the headline on the story does, what White did. But you’re unlikely to understand it and accept it (which is not the same as embracing it) if that’s all you know. To understand it, you must see her transformation, experience it as best one can reading a 6,500-word summary of 30 years of her life.

The best reaction I can hope for is to see a reader express surprise at reaching a new understanding of how the world works. Fortunately, I did see some of those sorts of comments, but they were often shouted down by others who clearly hadn’t bothered to read the story before reacting to it, or who flatly rejected White’s experience in order to describe their own imagined response; usually a violent one.

One of the moments I witnessed between White and Brown that didn’t make it into the story came during our lunch, when the two were loosening up a bit. They talked about how easily misunderstood their relationship is, how people feel compelled to tell them it’s wrong for White to have not only forgiven Brown, but to treat him as a friend. White told Brown that this is what she wants to say to those who judge and doubt her:

You do not know what you will or will not do in any given situation until you’ve been there. You just don’t know. For anyone to tell me, ‘Well I know I wouldn’t do this,’ or ‘I would do that,’ I say, ‘I don’t believe ya. I know you mean it. But you don’t KNOW always who you are and what you would do until you are confronted with it.’ And I just think it’s easy to say ‘I know what I’d do.’

Numbers and lives

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 5.35.23 PMAs part of a memorable report on the true costs of gun violence, a Mother Jones team — Mark Follman, Julie Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West — powerfully tells victims’ stories alongside data-driven reporting on the dollars and cents. The data side of the report is impressive enough, as it methodically quantifies the knowns and unknowns of what gun violence costs this country. But the human side of the stories goes to the heart of what victims suffer when injured by gunfire, or when their loved ones die in gun violence.

In a companion package of stories, we meet eight victims and survivors who tell their stories in short form: how they were injured, and the financial and other loses they have suffered. One of them, Jennifer Longdon, is the focus of the main story as she eloquently describes the attack that left her and her fiancé profoundly disabled and her anti-violence advocacy in Phoenix. Accompanying the text story are three videos: one summarizing the nationwide costs of gun violence, and two on Longdon’s case. The first of those describes the crime itself. The second, shown below, addresses the costs to Longdon. Hear Longdon talk about her losses beyond the financial. “Nothing,” she says, “was ever going to be simple or easy again.”

#Blacklivesmatter, brought to life

GhettosidecoverI can’t make up my mind about whether this was the best of times or the worst of times for me to read Jill Leovy’s stunning new book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.

I rushed to read it because I am writing a long feature story about the very same neighborhoods and issues she focuses on: the murders of young, black men in South Los Angeles. I finished the book last night and will finish a draft of my story, part of my upcoming series on criminal justice reform and crime victims, later today. Levy’s depiction of murder’s impact on families — and one murder and family in particular — inspired me with its use of anecdote to illustrate truths that outsiders to such devastated neighborhoods willfully turn away from.

At the same time, Leovy’s mastery gave me an especially intense case of writer neurosis. I always suffer from this whenever I’m wrapping up a project — self doubt, anxiety, all of that fun stuff — but this time it was made worse by the depth of Leovy’s reporting and the beauty of her character portraits and scenes.

Leovy, of The Los Angeles Times, spent more than a decade on the LA police beat and the reporting of this book. Long before #BlackLivesMatter was a thing, Leovy was embedded with the homicide detectives in LAPD’s notorious 77th Street Division, producing the Times‘ Homicide Report (a catalog of all the city’s homicides), reporting on thousands of homicides at street level. It shows in her writing, with countless vivid scenes in squad cars, at crime scenes, and in victims’ homes.

The hero of Leovy’s narrative is Detective John Skaggs, who makes it his mission to take every homicide seriously and to win the support of victims’ families. But the most deeply moving character is another homicide detective, Wallace Tennelle, the father of the victim at the center of the story. My first reaction to Leovy’s selection of the Tennelle case was disappointment. Of course the police would take the murder of one of their own most seriously. But Tennelle’s place in the story — leading to a climactic scene where he testifies in the trial of his son’s killers — blows away all doubt that the author chose well.

Featured as the lead review in The New York Times Book Review (which I blogged about here) and generating buzz in journalism and criminal-justice circles, Leovy’s book has the potential — through the sheer power of deep reporting and masterful writing — to move the policy conversation about this intractable social problem. More important, it has the potential to change hearts. I guess in that case I shouldn’t feel so bad that my humble effort pales by comparison to one of the most significant pieces of crime journalism ever produced.

Seeking answers close to home

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.46.54 AMSeattle Weekly has just published this long, powerful story by Nina Shapiro that addresses a question at the heart of my work: what stake victims have in the debate over reforms in sentencing and prisons. And she takes on the toughest, most complex kind of case, one in which a violent crime poses questions about punishment, victims’ prerogatives, and emotions on the spectrum from vengeance to forgiveness.

Shapiro’s story starts with Alison Holcomb, the ACLU of Washington activist put in charge of a national ACLU campaign to attack mass incarceration. (Disclosure: the funding for that campaign comes from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which also funds the Soros Justice Fellowship program that supports my work for a year.) Holcomb and other experts explain why it’s possible to simultaneously support criminal-justice reform and crime victims’ interests. If that’s all that the story accomplished, it would be significant, as I have found few stories that deal so directly with these questions and debunk assumptions that justice for victims starts and ends with the harshest possible punishment for those who harmed them.

But the narrative quickly turns to an even more compelling and unsettling story when Holcomb’s husband, Gregg, agrees to talk to Shapiro about his father’s murder in a 1993 robbery. He opens up about the differences of opinion in his family over the killer’s parole chances and about his own mixed feelings, of letting go of hate while at the same time feeling guilty about that and fantasizing about hurting the killer’s family in the same way his family was hurt. Shapiro delicately renders a human and compelling portrait, illuminating the real issues that victims wrestle with as they seek answers about their loved one’s last moments. She does a fine job of explaining the competing concepts of traditional criminal justice and alternatives like restorative justice. Best of all, she paints in shades of gray.

One more thing: The story features an interview with Oscar Rubi, the man serving 25 years to life for killing Gregg Holcomb’s father. He was 17 at the time of the crime and is now eligible for parole. If that’s all that you think you need to know about Rubi and Holcomb to make value judgments about them, then read the story and listen.

“Flowing from heart to hand to pen”

Although this blog’s focus is on narrative journalism, it’s worth taking a detour from nonfiction now and then — especially when the storytelling concerns one of the great true-crime narratives.

BBC News Magazine has just published this essay on “the book that changed me.” The book is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. And the writer it changed is Steve Earle. I’ve written before about my love for Americana singer-songwriting and the common thread I see between that work and the writing I celebrate on this blog. Both, at their best, show us the underside of life in a way that contradicts easy judgments and emotions. No one does that better than Earle, whose own struggles with drug addiction (which landed him a short stint in a Tennessee prison) inform a song catalog rich with murder ballads, ne’er do wells, and human flaws.

While Earle has long been a vocal opponent of the death penalty — his most notable song on that theme, about a Texas inmate he befriended, appears in the video below — I’d never heard his explanation for where that all started for him. That’s the point of his BBC News Magazine essay, in which Earle tells of discovering In Cold Blood at a young age and devouring the book, which he quotes at length.

Earle closes his essay with his reaction to the final execution scene, showing that the book influenced more than just Earle’s position on one justice-policy question:

I had never read anything remotely like it. I had enough science fiction under my belt by the time I was 12 to understand that words could challenge me to think, to consider ideas and attitudes that would have never occurred to me otherwise, but this writer was dragging me around by the heartstrings and it was that meeting of my heart and my mind that would ultimately coalesce in my decades-long involvement with the campaign against the death penalty around the world. But it all began that day when I finished reading and I closed the book that changed me and discovered, much to my surprise, that despite my compassion for the Clutters and my horror at the atrocity inflicted on them, I held some sympathy and perhaps even more profoundly confusing, genuine empathy for Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, even though no two characters less deserving of either had ever been committed to paper.


The power of intellect and humanity flowing from heart to hand to pen to page.

And I could put myself on Death Row, alongside two cold-blooded murderers because Truman Capote could.

“On the other side of a shotgun”

Early in the documentary Evolution of a Criminal, filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe decodes the meaning behind the title by revealing exactly what crime he committed. He does that by filming with a hidden camera as he knocks on the door of one of the victims of the bank robbery he committed at age 16, and for which he served in a Texas prison from 1998 to 2001. Ten years after the crime, he approaches each of his victims to apologize — a gesture that not only makes for compelling scenes (especially with one victim, who becomes a key character on camera), but one that speaks to the film’s ultimate purpose. Monroe explained it this way in a Q&A:

The idea to make this documentary came to me during my third year in the grad film program at NYU. I was actually at a bank, making a deposit, when I thought someone was going to come inside and rob it. I stood in line filled with anxiety because I thought this day would be the day of reckoning. I believe in karma and I just knew that I was going to one day experience being on the other side of a shotgun.

Fortunately, the robbery was a figment of my imagination, but the feeling, the anxiety never went away. I thought about the customers in the bank the day I participated in a robbery a decade prior. I wondered about their experience and was ashamed that so many years had gone by without an apology.

The result is a compelling contemplation on accountability and redemption as Monroe interviews his victims, his prosecutor, and his family about what he put himself and everyone else through. Raised in a hard-working family, an honors student with a good mind, he let his frustration with his family’s poverty lead him to commit a rash, get-rich-quick crime that could have turned out much worse than it did, for his victims and for him.

Evolution of a Criminal makes no excuses. It explains why Monroe did what he did, but hammers home the point that he accepts the blame he deserves while seeking to prove that he is more than that one bad act.

The film aired on PBS last night and is available from Independent Lens for streaming here through February 10,

Making certain crimes matter

The latest On the Media program focuses on true crime. Most of the story segments examine the entertaining side of the genre — stories that happen to be true but have more in common with police dramas and mysteries than with the sort of policy-rooted stories I pay more attention to on this blog. The whole show is worth a listen, but two segments particularly so because they look at what I’ll call the serious side of entertaining true crime.

First off, Bob Garfield interviews Salon’s Laura Miller about how we distinguish between trashy true-crime writing and quality, a theme she explored in this essay last May. It’s how she defines quality that I like: not simply in literary terms, but about the ideas that a writer uses the story to explore.

Citing the best-known true-crime book of all, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Miller cites his artful grappling with why the killers killed:

It’s a book full of unanswered questions, I mean that, to me, is what defines a great true-crime book: is its willingness to accept the unanswerable about humanity and the impossibility of achieving justice.

Though the discussion does not explicitly ask and answer who’s carrying on the Capote tradition today, Miller talks about what makes a story matter — “The right writer can make a particular crime matter, when the wrong writer cannot.” — and cites New York magazine’s Robert Kolker as one who illustrates that in his book Lost Girls. The book, which I reviewed here, tells the story of unsolved serial killings on Long Island that targeted sex workers. “There is a New York Post way of telling that story,” Miller says, about one-dimensional hookers chased by a “boogie monster.” She continues:

Or there’s the question of how someone becomes a victim, told in a way that brings in the whole social context, so that it becomes something more than just a freakish, scary occurrence that you kind of goggle (ed.: ogle?] at. And it instead looks at it as an inevitable symptom of some aspect of our society. The stories together move our frame of mind to a fuller grasp of reality.

And, I would add, because such stories are told so well and backed by such deep reporting, they engage us far more than if a theorist or academic were to address those questions.

In the final segment, Garfield interviews Peter Nickeas of the Chicago Tribune (this is a reprise of a story I blogged about last July). As the overnight crime reporter, he writes about more than just the bang-bang, going beyond traditional police sources to examine chronic violence. He tells Garfield, “There’s a lot of ways of looking at violence other than what has been box-scores type of coverage.” Anyone who thinks of all crime reporters as vultures interested only in their own glory should hear how he describes his work and motives.

Hope amid violence

I end this blogging year with a different form of storytelling than what I usually focus on here, the written word (most often lots and lots of words). Because of my respect for copyright, I will only link to the story, a single news photo by Scott Strazzante. But I’ll quote Louise Kiernan, editor of Nieman Storyboard, on why she included it in an excellent year-end “stories we loved” list:

After living in Chicago for more than two decades, I’ve read and watched and listened to more reports than I can count about the terrible toll of violence in my beloved city. This year, though, I thought a single photograph told one of most nuanced — and painful– stories. This image by Scott Strazzante, a Chicago Tribune photographer who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, stands apart from the familiar images of bereft mothers holding aloft snapshots of their lost children or crowds gathered around a lumpy body bag on a street corner. Words can’t do justice to the expression on that police officer’s face.

I can’t add much to that, except to say that the police officer’s look, and the image of those innocent children caught up in the horrors of urban violence, are the ideas that give meaning to my work and to the work of the people I report on and write about. Here’s to a better 2015 for crime victims and survivors, and to the people who care about them.

What Serial hath wrought

serial-social-logoAs a committed contrarian, I convinced myself weeks ago that I  had ample reason to hate Serial, Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular podcast about a high school student’s murder and her ex-boyfriend’s questionable conviction. Let me cite a few of the big ones:

  • The over-the-top fawning over this story, as if it were the Most Amazing Story Ever, ignored the existence of great true-crime storytelling in books, magazines, and online — the kinds of stories I regularly feature on this blog, archived here and here. In the ecstatic reaction to this supposedly revolutionary form, it seemed no one realized that the process Koenig showed is pretty much what all reporters do for a living on any story told at length. And the conflicting, inconclusive proof that called into question a conviction and life sentence? Well, that’s pretty common, too, as anyone who follows the literature of wrongful conviction can attest.
  • Significant holes in the reporting, despite Koenig’s embarrassment of reporting riches in the form of a team of producers from Serial’s parent, This American Life, along with a paid private detective consultant and a team of innocence-project researchers. The victim’s family? The chief prosecution witness? All ducked the show’s requests to talk. Moreover, Koenig’s hook — that we were following along as she tried to puzzle out the case and her feelings about it — betrayed an approach that most journalists would consider naive and baffling. How do you start telling a story without knowing where it’s going? The all-important ending should be a mystery to the reader and listener, but most definitely not to the storyteller.
  • Koenig’s meandering, angsty tone — the sighs, the groans, the fretting — took transparency to neurotic new highs. It’s one thing as a storyteller to show modesty in not pretending to know with certainty everything about a case. It’s another to make that the whole point of the story with frequent dramatic flourishes. Call me old-fashioned, but I loathe the me-me-me narcissism that is so faddish in storytelling today, where journalists put themselves at the center of the narrative out of literary laziness rather than necessity.

And yet, now that the last episode has gone up, I admit I was hooked along with all the other fans. It was, flat out, a good story with more than enough questions to pull us through to the end. The ending, in particular, had a clarity and punch that I did not expect. Regardless of how I reacted to it, what’s important about the story is that millions of new fans of nonfiction crime narrative now, I hope, will seek out the work of David Grann, Robert Kolker, Pamela Colloff, Patrick Radden Keefe, Paige Williams, Emily Bazelon, and so many more veterans of the craft of deeply reported, finely told crime stories. For God’s sake, just subscribe to The New Yorker and you’re halfway to true-crime heaven.

Will podcast fans make the leap to the written word? I hope that people who found the time to listen to an hourlong story every week could carve out at least that much time for quality reading. Some of us read much more than that every day. Maybe I’m showing my age as well as my preferences as a visual, not auditory, learner. But the excuse for not reading — lack of time — falls flat when the same people can watch TV entertainment fluff for hours every day. If you liked Serial that much, you owe it to yourself to dip into the deep pool of quality crime narrative out there.