Buried: "Memory is an issue in every trial"

Plus "Bad Sport" and bad titling practices

Dear true-crime content creators: please stop starting your titles with the word “American.” I am NOT a crackpot. …Okay, I kind of am, but why does upcoming Mob doc American Rackets “need” the word “American” in it? They couldn’t do something with Rackets Red Glare or Johnny Rackets, since the film also concerns a conspiracy to kill John Gotti? …Off The Rackets? …No? Okay. In any event, here’s a trailer for the doc,

which features a young Samuel Alito, and hits VOD next Tuesday, October 19. — SDB

Has anyone checked out Bad Sport on Netflix? I got the “we just added a docuseries you might like” email last week, and on the one hand, having not heard anything about it prior to that, I felt like maybe it’s one of those projects they felt enh about and just dropped without fanfare. On the other hand, figure-skating extortion!

On the other other hand, the fifth episode is an automatic skip for me (it’s called “Horse Hitman,” enough said). If any of you guys checked it out and think we should too — or not — let me know! — SDB

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CW: discussion of sexual assault, harm to children

The crime
From the paperback edition of Popular Crime by Bill James, p. 273:

On September 22, 1969, Susan Nason disappeared from her home in Foster city, California. … Her body was found ten weeks later, abandoned in a trash pile on public land. Despite massive police efforts, the crime went unsolved for twenty years.

Eileen Franklin was Susan Nason’s best friend. Twenty years later, in January of 1989, she was overwhelmed with a terrible memory: she had witnessed the crime. Her father, a brutal, abusive alcoholic, had raped and murdered the little girl in her presence, and then threatened to kill Eileen if she ever told. She had repressed the memory and kept silent for twenty years, but when the scene returned to her mind she told her husband, who contacted the police.

George Franklin had not been a key suspect in the investigation, and there was little independent evidence to tie him to the murder. The police decided that Eileen Franklin’s story was credible, and that her account of the murder was consistent with the crime-scene evidence. The latter is a debatable point; almost everything useful to know about the crime scene had made it into the newspapers, and Eileen’s confirming memories were vague.

Spoilers ahead as to the disposition of the case; skip to the review’s last graf to avoid these.

The story
The case went to trial anyway, although that was far from the end of it or of the Franklin family’s fractured story, and its landmark status as “the repressed-memory case” is the subject of Buried, the four-part docuseries on Showtime from writer/directors Yotam Guendelman and Ari Pines (Shadow of Truth; the upcoming Coastal Road Killer). I remembered James’s summary as soon as I read the press materials, although I have no contemporary memory of the case (like many others from the time, it sort of disappeared in the glare of senior-in-high-school stuff), because James goes on to say that “it is unfortunate that Franklin cannot be prosecuted for the things he actually appears to have done.” I’ve always found that sentence striking, because of how often it’s true…how often the system, and the humans who administer it, try to even up the score for victims, and how easily that can go awry. We talk about it all the time here, that for all the prosecutorial complaining on Law & Order about not getting a second bite at the apple, courts find ways to get the bad guys. Capone; OJ; we can all cite examples. But what if they’re not in fact the bad guys? What if they are, but due process isn’t observed? What if all the players are people of color? What if we didn’t rely on post-Freudian theorizing to justify believing women?

Buried doesn’t try to answer all of these questions, but it does at least raise most of them, and yet I’m still struggling with whether to recommend it, because I think the questions are critical for true-crime consumers to address…while also thinking that we can address them in ways that don’t require spending four hours with the Franklin family’s pain. Buried is not an easy watch, particularly in the first episode, which is unstinting in its description of the degenerate pornographic material police found during a search of George Franklin’s home in the late eighties, and also devotes a fair amount of screentime to an ex-girlfriend of his describing his attempt to strangle her while drunk. I’ve said before that enduring “testimony” of this type as a viewer lets us acknowledge and believe survivors, and I suspect the filmmakers’ intent in not sparing us certain details is to suggest fairly strongly that Eileen Franklin may have felt she had no choice but to believe, or to pretend, she remembered this story, because the societal environment she grew up in would not let her be acknowledged or believed about incest and/or other abuse. I doubt it was conscious manipulation on Eileen’s part; something happened to Eileen as a girl, and that something is unquestionably…George. But Eileen surely had absorbed over the decades that “merely” accusing her father of the monstrous deeds he actually committed would not be “enough” to get her pain heard and her tormentor punished. She would have to go bigger.

So, the Franklin case is instructive vis-a-vis the lengths survivors have felt, and still feel, they have to go to to get anyone to listen. It’s instructive as to how willing the culture is to be scandalized by a story like Eileen’s — and then to be able to reject it as made up, which in turn lets us feel safe, like we don’t have to worry about anything in her story or to look out for it in our own communities. It’s instructive as to our own hypocrisies when it comes to enforcing double jeopardy or insisting on corroborating evidence (this correspondent’s definitely not excluded!). And it speaks to more than a few troubling double standards when it comes to the rules and rigors of evidence, law enforcement as vengeance vs. justice, and so on. But is Buried the best way to learn from the case?

It may be. It’s difficult to watch, especially the first ep, but also well built; a lot of the own-fart-smelling interstitial visuals fall away after that, too (the close-ups of interviewees’ irises; the blipverts during Eileen’s testimony). I don’t think it needs to go as long as it does, but it gets fantastic access to nearly everyone — including Harry N. MacLean, an underrated writer in the genre who won an Edgar for In Broad Daylight and also wrote a book on this case. It’s not exactly innovative in its “here’s the center of our story, flashback to inciting event, BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE” structure, but that’s fine. Less fine is the multiple uses of contemporary footage featuring THIS creep:

I swear to fucking God, true-crime producers, and particularly producers of properties concerning sexual assault — STOP USING FOOTAGE OF MATT LAUER. Just stop! Insert a test pattern if you have to! It’s years now! Fucking learn already!

…Anyway: that issue aside, it’s well made, and I did watch the entire thing. If you do know the case better than I did, it may not be a good use of your time, but it’s likely better than the 1992 TV movie starring Shelley Long as Eileen, so: I will recommend it, but with caveats in re: Lauer and difficult content. (A mid-nineties Frontline on recovered memories, linked below, will probably have lower levels of both those things.)

Buried premiered last night on broadcast Showtime, and all episodes should be available on the network’s app as of this writing. — SDB

This week on Best Evidence: Peterson and Holmes updates, leashing Dog The Bounty Hunter, and Dopesick. Waiting on a review that might end up behind the paywall? Throw some money at that problem!

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