Saturday, May 5, 2012

Please Compare and Contrast the Following Titles

Further back in the recesses of our Fiction and Music Annex one can now find our expanded True Crime section. We have more room for oversize material, more new books, and, while they last, two giant shelves of mass market paperbacks. On a related note, two quality titles have been published in paperback this month.

     Popular Crime, by well-known baseball statistician Bill James, is a fascinating look at nearly two hundred years of crimes, mostly murders, which have captured the American imagination. James is a logician, a contrarian, and a voracious reader of true crime books profound, obscene, obscure, pedestrian, and trashy. His chapters of the Jon Benet-Ramsey case and the Butcher of Kingsbury Run (aka the Cleveland Torso Murderer) are particularly strong. I do not endorse his thinking on public policy, which can be reactionary in the extreme. But I love this title and now it's new at $15.

     Also hitting our shelves in paperback this month, to be found on our Staff Favorites display, is Sarah Burns' The Central Park Five. It tells of one of biggest crime stories in this history of New York City--the "Central Park Jogger" case of 1989. Five teenagers from public housing were quickly arrested and convicted, though the evidence at the scene indicated only one perpetrator was involved. Their convictions were voided in 2002.

     This title is an excellent companion to last year's paperback release of Finding Chandra by Washington Post reporters Scott Hingham and Sari Horwitz. Modesto native Chandra Levy vanished in a Washington DC public park in 2001. It was over a year before her body was discovered. The police focused on the man with whom she'd been having an affair, serial adulterer and then-Stanislaus County Congressman Gary Condit. He was not responsible and was never charged. Her killer was convicted in 2009.

      These cases share quite a few similarities. Both concern professional women in cosmopolitan big cities who were attacked in public parks. In both cases, police and media quickly focused on individuals who had been doing, well, dumb shit that sure made them look bad. The New York teens had been punching strangers in the park that night, going so far as to steal food from a homeless guy. Condit was an amoral philanderer, for whom Levy was just the latest in a string of women who hid their relationship with him while dreaming of the day (which he assured them would be soon) he'd quit Congress, divorce his wife, and settle down with them. Both cases occurred in cities with extremely sophisticated, numerous, relentless, and ravenous media. Only London is worse (better?) in this regard than NYC and DC. In both cities black and brown people became greatly angered that an assault on a wealthy white woman generated such rapid reactions from city bureaucracies, when so many similar crimes against their demographic were, um, not exactly top priorities. Both perpetrators proved to be Salvadorian immigrants who were already in jail for other, similar crimes when their guilt in these cases was revealed.

     The biggest and most obvious difference was the status of the original suspects. The black and Latino teens from public housing were bereft of legal assistance of any kind, leaving their guardians to be jerked around by the police while detectives (illegally) leaned on the kids. Condit was white, telegenic, well-spoken... Oh yeah, and a sitting Congressman. He treated with deference by the police despite being their prime suspect. In the Central Park case, the media took their cues from the police, including the coining of the infamous term "wilding" to describe the kids' behavior. The term was attributed, falsely, to the teens, but came from the cops. In DC, the cops took their clues from the media. Calmer and wiser heads immediately realized that Condit was scumbag, but not a murderous one. But the "Representative-denies-affair-with-missing-intern" angle was much too strong for the media to pass up. The cops had nothing else to go on and so wasted their time trying to figure out where he stashed the body. The Central Park case was cracked when the perpetrator met one of the convicted teens, now in his 20s, in jail. He came forward with a detailed and accurate confession which led to their convictions being overturned. No arrests were made in DC until the Post reporters utilized geographical profiling to identify a likely suspect, already imprisoned for attacks on women in the same park.

     True crime is another window onto the power structures and prejudices of our society. These two books in particular are a sad but worthwhile education.  


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