A trifecta of law-enforcement flailing

Plus "Mystery At Sea," Sarah Weinman's next book, and more

I had never heard of The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show before reader A. pointed me to this true-crime parody in the show’s second episode, and I llol’d before the end of the first line of the sketch. “A mystery…on the open sea…when Mystery At Sea…continues.” A barrage of crime-newsmag clichés follows, and then Ed Helms (I think? He’s not credited anywhere but I’m pretty sure it’s him) steps out of the shadows of a warehouse set (perfect) to set the scene for this mystery, which occurred July 19! Perfect! Then comes the twist, which is very clever, and the sketch is just the right length. — SDB


Still working my way through the July 5-18 issue of New York, the one coverlined “Insurrection Day” — and while 1/6 narratives will inevitably become their own subgenre of true-crime properties in the near future, I was more taken with a mostly-unrelated column from Eric Levitz called “Making Sense of Murder.” Levitz’s thesis as stated in his subhed is that “Progressives shouldn’t avoid talking about rising homicides,” and he goes on to explicate at some length the ways each side of the aisle politicizes crime. The ossified political-branding “positions” that result don’t help cities address the problem: “[I]n America, safety and compassion historically have been deemed competing goods.” And then there’s the way these positions are packaged in news cycles, viz. this story that happened to cycle through my Twitter TL this morning.

Back to Levitz, who acidly notes that the progressive movement’s intransigence on facing crime statistics head-on isn’t just self-defeating; it reads as cynically conditional as well:

[P]ublicly associating progressivism with complacency about a rise in homicides … invites the suspicion that the (largely white, middle-class) progressive movement’s interest in preserving the lives of disadvantaged Black people is highly contingent: Lose your son in a way we find ideologically flattering and narratively satisfying — at the hands of a cop or some other archetypal embodiment of white supremacy — and you will know our solidarity. Lose him to another disadvantaged kid in a tit-for-tat gang feud, and we’ll criticize the media for treating an uptick in deaths like his as a serious issue.

Levitz goes on to say that he in fact suspects “the left’s (far from universal) impulse to downplay rising homicide” comes from anxieties about an ensuing “punitive turn in public policy,” and that those anxieties are well-founded — see: the crime-bill albatross continuing to rot around the neck of President Biden — and overall, the piece is a bleak but readable snapshot of larger issues the left has with confident messaging. — SDB


“Bleak but readable” is a Sarah Weinman trademark, I’d say — that’s a compliment! — and her newsletter just arrived in my inbox announcing that her next infuriating and essential book is dropping next February. (2/22/22, to be precise. Love it.) Here’s a snippet from the back-cover copy of Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts To Set Him Free:

In the 1960s, Edgar Smith, in prison and sentenced to death for the murder of teenager Victoria Zielinski, struck up a correspondence with William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. Buckley, who refused to believe that a man who supported the neoconservative movement could have committed such a heinous crime, began to advocate not only for Smith’s life to be spared but also for his sentence to be overturned.

So begins a bizarre and tragic tale of mid-century America.

Can’t wait to fill the window at Exhibit B. with this one, a project Weinman spent “more than seven years” investigating. — SDB


In other infuriating news, here’s a trio of reads about law enforcement having trouble with the whole “enforcing” part…and also the “law” part, a little bit.

  • “‘Nobody Believed Me’: How Rape Cases Get Dropped” [New York Times] // This is enragingly familiar territory to anyone who’s so much as seen a Law & Order episode on a sexual-assault case, but it’s worth returning to.

    The low prosecution rate partly reflects the inherent challenges of prosecuting sexual assault, particularly cases like Ms. Duong’s, in which the attacker is not a stranger and alcohol is involved. For cases that are not dropped, conviction rates for sexual assault cases are typically much lower than for other violent crimes: 44 percent in Manhattan in 2019, compared with 79 percent for first-degree murder.

    “There aren’t really any third-party witnesses to these things,” said Carl Bornstein, a former state and federal prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This is tough sledding. The prosecutor has to assess: is this going to hold up under the scrutiny of 12 people?”

    But some who study the matter believe the high drop rate also reflects prosecutors’ unwillingness to tackle those challenges.

  • “Watchdog: FBI mishandled Nassar-USA Gymnastics abuse case” [AP, WaPo] // A report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, which WaPo describes as “scathing,”

    paints a disturbing portrait of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency being told details of what would become one of the most shocking cases of serial sex abuse in recent American history, yet failing to follow up with key witnesses or even notify other law enforcement agencies of potential crimes happening in their jurisdictions.

    The report noted that according to civil court filings, about 70 women and girls were victimized by Nassar between the time when the FBI was first told of the allegations, and when Michigan officials arrested him on the basis of separate information.

  • “Hit-And-Run Drivers Are Killing More NYers And Facing Fewer Consequences” [Gothamist] // As a resident of a neighborhood notable even in NYC for the combined velocity and crappiness of the locals’ driving, this is grim reading:

    Even in the most severe incidents, drivers who leave the scene of a crash in New York City are rarely ever caught. As traffic deaths continue to rise, the toll of unsolved hit-and-runs appears to be worsening.

    During the first half of this year, there were 47 fatal or near-fatal hit-and-run crashes on city streets, the highest total in any six month period since at least 2015, when the department was first required to start publishing the data.

    Of those cases, the Collision Investigation Squad has made 11 arrests — a rate of just 23%. By comparison, the department’s clearance rate for murders last year was 54%.

Funny how, in a way, we’re back to the rising crime rate. Well, except for the “funny” part. — SDB


My esteemed colleague Emily VanDerWerff reviewed We Keep The Dead Close for Vox. VanDerWerff doesn’t have the issues with Becky Cooper’s structuring of the story around its solution that I did — or thinks it works for the book’s larger purpose, the story OF the story:

We Keep the Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (both in its book and TV adaptation forms) and a few other recent titles as important works within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story — especially one in the past — can alter and warp that story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.

Both McNamara (who diligently traced the serial rapist and murderer dubbed the Golden State Killer) and Cooper disappeared into their research. Both used their research to highlight crimes that had been largely forgotten. The criminals in both of the cases they studied were eventually caught by authorities thanks in part to the authors’ efforts to force those cases back into the spotlight. But both women are also less interested in getting credit for their work than they are in the ways the crimes they cover underscore enormous gaps in how our society treats different groups of people. The cases they cover obliquely comment on structural misogyny, with a smattering of moments where structural classism and racism brush up against the stories of the victims and their killers.

But basically VanDerWerff and I agree that We Keep The Dead Close is a significant book; she’s irised out to assess it in a more general “how well does this contribute to The Discourse” way, where I was in closer for a “what is this like as a reading experience” take, but we concur that it’s worthwhile. — SDB


Thursday on Best Evidence: Podcasts; steroids; we’ll see what Eve thinks is interesting!


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