Random thoughts on crime

Mark,

Fascinating thoughts about real-life crime and fictional crime. I do have some responses that have been knocking around in my head, but they’re mostly random, so we’ll see how it goes.

First, about real crime: I, too, find these examples of incorrect verdicts interesting. Among my acquaintance are a retired homicide detective, a district attorney, and a lawyer who once worked for the Innocence Project. Needless to say, these people have different takes on the topic. The homicide detective and the DA have both said to me, in effect, that by the time someone gets to trial, it is certain that they are guilty; it’s just a question of what evidence is allowed to be presented. And, of course, the defense will try to disqualify the most damaging evidence. They also believe that jurors suffer from the “CSI” effect–that they expect conclusive physical evidence, because that’s what they see on the crime shows. And, actually, I get why my friends feel that way–I mean, it’s their job, and they want to feel that they are doing the right thing.

Naturally my friend who worked on the Innocence Project sees things in a more nuanced fashion. Some of their cases are ones in which the client was convicted before modern innovations in DNA evidence, and the convictions relied heavily on eyewitnesses who, as you point out, are highly subject to error.

But turning to fiction, I believe, as you implied, that it is the certainty that makes these stories so appealing. Mysteries usually have such a sense of moral rightness about them: good guys win, bad guys get punished, and there’s little or no ambiguity in the ending.

When I was the manager at the Morgan Hill Library, there was a woman who came in every year to give us a donation for the library, with the express instruction that we were to spend it buying mysteries for the collection. It turned out that some years earlier, she had been going through a divorce, and felt that her life was completely out of control–nothing made sense. She said the only thing that kept her going was reading mystery novels. She would come to the library and check out stacks of them, and read them one after another, because they made sense to her–there was a certainty there, a pattern she couldn’t find in the rest of her life. Since she felt that mysteries essentially saved her life, she wanted to give back by making sure that others had plenty of mysteries to read.

I’ve actually read a couple of YA books lately that are mysteries, or at least have a mystery element to them, so perhaps that’s another post in a couple of days.

– Mom

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Random thoughts on crime

  1. Jen J.

    Er, spoiler alert regarding Louise Penny books from a couple years ago.
    One of the most interesting writing decisions I’ve seen made regarding this was Louise Penny in her Inspector Gamache series. One of the major storylines in a later book in her series is basically unraveling the “slam dunk based on the evidence” conclusion to the book immediately preceding that. So rarely do they really allow the detectives in mysteries to get it wrong by the end of the story that the entire concept felt completely fresh and new. It is certainly a troubling thing to think about our society – that we can so often get this utterly wrong. But then, I wonder, would I be any better? I’ve never served on a jury, despite being called for jury duty a couple of time, I’ve never even been interviewed! It seems such a weighty responsibility that my major response to that is relief, but thinking about some of the people I know out there in the world being on juries scares the bejebus out of me! Sol, I’m pleased to stick to libraries where my job is important and makes a difference, but not to the point of threatening anyone’s life if I do it wrong. And yet – I can’t think of a better way to do our justice system, so I’ll serve if called. With it being book award season, I’m thinking about how hard we all struggle to put aside our biases when trying to decide what books should win which awards – how in the world can you be sure you’re doing that with your biases when people’s futures hang in the balance?

    • Mark Flowers

      Thanks Jen – I knew there must be examples like that out there. Do you remember the titles of the two books in question?

      As for putting aside our biases – amen! I’ve never been on a jury either, but I feel like I would never be able to get over the whole “reasonable doubt” thing. Maybe it’s my Jesuit school training, but I can always come up a reasonable argument to oppose the one I believe in.

  2. Jen J.

    Bury Your Dead was the follow up to The Brutal Telling. Really the whole series is fantastic; I cannot recommend them highly enough. I was thinking about this more and realized that my book club just read In The Woods by Tana French which ends with an innocent man going to prison because he confesses to protect someone else, but partly that is due to errors on the part of the police. I feel like we definitely see this happen more – where the police mess up with tragic consequences. This is part of what makes the Penny books so remarkable. She writes so that we are so firmly on the side of believing Inspector Gamache is a good, moral, highly intelligent man that even though he often doubts whether he has done the right things or come to the right conclusions, we never doubt. So when she spends the next book basically deconstructing how they got things wrong it’s even harder to believe.

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