Crazy, Not Insane · Life After Lockup · Aileen Wuornos
Plus COVID and the courts, and how slavery "invented" the police
Crazy, Not Insane hits HBO tonight. It’s the latest from Alex Gibney (Going Clear), who’s been extremely busy this year, on the career of forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis. I wrote it up for Primetimer, and while I really liked it, I also think it missed some opportunities:
[Lewis] tells a story about the last meal of a cognitively challenged man before his execution that makes it clear he didn't understand what really awaited him in a meaningful way, and that narrower focus — on the criminalizing of mental illness and intellectual delays, especially in populations of color — might have made the film feel more cogent.
Still, even a flawed Alex Gibney production is worthwhile. Given how many other projects he's had on the go this year alone — an episode of The Innocence Files, his upcoming Tiger Woods doc, the Russian-election-interference doc, the COVID doc — it's understandable if Gibney looked at the material he had here, decided an approachable subject and exclusive access to notorious murderers' hypno-analysis could carry a feature, and edited it together without too many second thoughts.
I never miss an opportunity to mention that Gibney is married to the daughter of my seventh-grade homeroom teacher, so here’s me doing that — but I’ll also recommend Crazy, Not Insane, which isn’t perfect but does do some interesting things. — SDB
The new season of Life After Lockup hits Friday, and it’s shaping up as one of those “keep a thumb over the FF button the remote” affairs. (Especially since it’s not going to involve the producers forcing Heather to spend a couple of hours with Dr. Phil — not that I wish that on her, really, or care to send Dr. Phil any work, but the unstoppable force/immovable object-iness of the situation would make interesting television, at least for a half hour.) Historically I have skipped Andrea/Lamar segments, although it looks like Tennison, who should really be providing Pop-Up Video-style commentary on that family, is over it with his mom’s ideas about religious instruction; and I’m not sure I can keep watching Michael trifling with Sarah much longer. (And may not have to, as Michael got arrested for felony child neglect last week.)
But some of the new-to-the-spinoff couples come from the most recent season of Love After Lockup — the truly dysfunctional ones, too — and Shawn’s befuddlement in the fact of things like…facts? and human nature? is really something. If you’re on the fence, here’s the trailer, in which Kelly, the mother of Shawn’s six (!) children, asks if he knows “anything about girls at all” and Shawn duhs, “No?”
“Buntsy, isn’t there a shit-ton of good true-crime programming you could be watching instead of feeling superior to these poor souls?” There is — but this is good true-crime programming, and here’s why: the show doesn’t feel superior to its subjects, actually (and I don’t either). Love After Lockup is instructive as to what confronts formerly incarcerated people when they get out, from POs not letting them leave the county, to COVID lockdowns meaning they have to tough it out with their prison boos even if it’s a bad fit, to falling back into bad patterns if they’re not properly supported by family and significant others; it’s sugar-free — and not judgmental — about criminalized substance abuse, and the role of families of origin and generational addiction (the couple pictured up top takes repeated, ugly journeys into that narrative via Brittany’s mom, who just cannot get cocaine off her neck). The editing and structuring of any given episode makes it seem like garbage-time rubbernecking, and some of it is, but a lot of it is…the Kellys of the world, trying not to lose it on their kids’ dads because they’re thinking with their dicks and spending the diaper funds. And I don’t know what the compensation looks like for folks who participate in the franchise, but for some of these couples and families to get a financial boost at a dicey time isn’t the worst thing.
Look, it’s not Wiseman-level “art,” but it is a window into just a handful of the broken lives the carceral state hath wrought. I occasionally tweet about the show so if you don’t already, throw @BestEvidenceFYI a follow and join the conversation. — SDB
A&E’s Real Crime blog has an interesting interview with Phyllis Chesler, a “feminist leader, psychotherapist and expert courtroom witness” who had hoped to testify on Aileen Wuornos’s behalf. Chesler’s book about Wuornos, Requiem for a Female Serial Killer, came out last week and is currently rocking a 5/5 on Goodreads. You can read Crystal Ponti’s Q&A with Chesler here, and some of what Chesler has to say about jury selection, bias against sex workers, and particularly “Lee”’s inability to get out of her own way is making me want to check out the book:
I also think Lee was the most difficult client Trish [Jenkins, Wuornos’s PD] had ever had. Lee didn’t know how to save herself. She clearly knew how to survive on the highway and on the road of life she had traveled, but she couldn’t understand, for example, why feminists would care about her or testify on her behalf. Trish should have called some of us to testify. If she had, the jury would have learned about previous cases where women were raped and argued self-defense and won. The jury never got to hear the phrase “self-defense,” even though Lee used the term 16 times in her video confession.
If your library doesn’t have Requiem yet, as mine does not, you can pass the time with a New Yorker piece from 2015 — called, almost tackily, “Lady Killers” — about law enforcement’s unwillingness to label the woman-identified as serial murderers. — SDB
Last day to subscribe at a discount! We just knocked Best Evidence down to $46 for a year, in honor of our 46th president.
Substack’s coupon mechanism is…weird, so we have to offer you 17 percent off, which comes out to $46. The point is, the math works, and so does a gift subscription for those hard-to-shop-for folks in your family, so have at it!
Back into the New Yorker archives (ish; the piece ran in July) for a Jill Lepore piece on “inventing the police.” “The Long Blue Line” draws a wide, bright line of its own between the evolution of policing as we understand it today and slavery. Here’s Lepore on the mid-20th-century cultural relationship between good guys and bad guys — on TV:
Two kinds of police appeared on mid-century American television. The good guys solved crime on prime-time police procedurals like “Dragnet,” starting in 1951, and “Adam-12,” beginning in 1968 (both featured the L.A.P.D.). The bad guys shocked America’s conscience on the nightly news: Arkansas state troopers barring Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School, in 1957; Birmingham police clubbing and arresting some seven hundred Black children protesting segregation, in 1963; and Alabama state troopers beating voting-rights marchers at Selma, in 1965. These two faces of policing help explain how, in the nineteen-sixties, the more people protested police brutality, the more money governments gave to police departments.
Lepore is one of my favorite TNY writers, and this piece is crisp, angry, and maddening. — SDB
Lots of promising headlines in recent days about a COVID vaccine…but as we stare down the barrel of what’s shaping up as a long, physically distanced winter (it’s a breezy 35 in the Ridge of Bay this morning), it’s clear we’ll be untangling the secondary knots of this pandemic for years to come. Gothamist reported last week that New York courts have to slow down again after virus cases started “increasingly popping up in courthouses. In New York City alone, 11 people who work in 11 different court buildings have tested positive for the coronavirus since Monday [the 9th].” Reps for clerks’ and court officers’ associations tell WNYC’s Beth Fertig that courts tried to come back too soon with too many employees and too much of the public in the building at one time.” On the other hand, Linda Hoff, deputy managing director of the criminal practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, “warned against winding down courthouse operations to what they resembled in March, when almost everything froze, because that will force defendants to wait in jail even longer (though the city later allowed many out due to health concerns).”
Meanwhile, as Pfizer et al. try to get FDA sign-off on their coronavirus preventives, I’m wondering who’s going to end up a defendant for vaccine fraud — distributing it unlicensed, passing off sugar water as the real thing, whatever that looks like. Court dockets around the world are going to be packed with COVID flim-flammers of all sorts in 2023, I’m betting…and I’ll be here, reviewing the inevitable HBO Salk Road docuseries. — SDB
Thursday on Best Evidence: Dumb true-crime start-up tricks, and Trial 4.