Lizzie Borden · $1000 Docu Binge · Accused: Guilty Or Innocent?

Plus, Garbus family values and a diverting Reddit

Welcome back to another week of Best Evidence, everyone. Thanks for joining us; we’ve got some v. cool content coming up here and on the podcast in the next couple of weeks, including an interview with a crime-pod titan, two bonus book review for paid subscribers, and a True-Crime Alphabet project. So stay tuned, and tell a friend about us! — SDB

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I didn’t realize until recently that Liz Garbus’s focus on non-fiction accounts of crime is in fact a family business. Garbus fille is of course the director of Lost Girls, Who Killed Garrett Phillips, The Farm: Angola, USA, and There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. What I didn’t know until I was Googling around prior to the Blotter Presents episode on Lost Girls is how many well-known cases Garbus père had had his hands on/in. The photo above is from a New York Times article on Garbus and his most notorious client at that time, Don Imus, but here’s a very brief list of other Garbus matters:

  • unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg

  • defended Lenny Bruce against an obscenity charge

  • petitioned President Obama for clemency for Leonard Peltier

  • represented defendants in the French Connection drug cases

  • also represented the “Cuban Five,” Cesar Chavez, and the Metropolitan Opera

Garbus has also shaped libel statutes in the U.S. I don’t know how he’s regarded “in the industry,” but any big-name First Amendment case from the last 50 years probably has at least one of his fingerprints on it. It’s interesting to speculate how growing up in a home with that particular mind might have informed Liz Garbus’s narrative-career path. — SDB

Accused: Guilty Or Innocent premieres on Tuesday, so my weekly Primetimer/Crimetimer column went up a bit early. Maybe it’s due to lowered expectations, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the show. I’m also a bit disappointed that it’s on A&E, not because A&E is per se terrible — although, as I mention in the piece, such a defense-centric program is somewhat off-brand for that network — but because Accused would work far better on a streamer.

But it does work, and in this snippet, I talk about one of the reasons why.

There's a metric for assessing true-crime shows that I've been trying to name for some years now — the "Google-Proof Quotient"? the "Attention/Curiosity Ratio"? — that basically boils down to how well a series can hold your attention through to its conclusion without viewers grabbing their phones to look up a verdict.

Dateline and other TV newsmags tend to score poorly here, because while they're good at selecting interesting or controversial cases, they're padded with so much lugubrious B-roll and predictable talking-head commentary that they often lose our interest. Whatever name I ultimately settle on for this phenomenon (and I welcome your suggestions!), Accused gets high marks.

I have talked about this metric on the podcast and here many many times; it’s past time to name the concept, so if you have input, let’s hear it. In the meantime, set your DVRs for Accused, but then let a few rack up so you can enjoy the four-straight-hours experience the show’s truly meant for. — SDB

While you’re waiting, you can use the time to make a cool thou watching true-crime. MagellanTV, a documentary streaming service, wants to pay someone $1000 to watch 24 hours of true-crime docs. Naturally, it’s not quite that neat and easy; you have to watch their true-crime docs, which, with titles like Tortured To Death: Murdering The Nanny and Parachute Murder Plot, is perhaps not the smallest ask, although the chosen binger will have 48 hours to complete their mission, not just 24.

I have gotten repeated emails about this offer in the last few weeks — and a couple for non-true-crime binges — and I sort of classified them as the same white-noisy spam that was promising I could take someone’s temperature from three blocks away with this NASA thermometer or whatever the F. But it’s possible that the thousand bucks is still on the table, and I can’t think of a better custodian than one of y’all, so if you like, you can apply here. — SDB

Hey, remember when Tom Hanks and Chloe Sevigny were teaming up on a Lizzie Borden project? Yeah, I didn’t either, but according to this archival speculation pitting the Christina Ricci Lizzie against this once-and-future series, it was A Thing at some point. Here’s how I saw a face-off going down.


According to the nursery rhyme, Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks -- and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. But the nursery rhyme doesn't know the half of it: it was her stepmother; she didn't hit either of them that many times; she may not have hit anyone at all (she was acquitted of the murders); she had a shoplifting problem that could have derived from her father touching her inappropriately…it's one of the great American crime stories, not least because it technically remains unsolved.

Lizzie is getting the biopic treatment in an upcoming Lifetime movie, with Christina Ricci in the Lizzie role; the production just added Clea Duvall (as Lizzie's sister, Emma) and Billy Campbell (as Lizzie's lawyer, Andrew Jennings). Not only that, but TV Line seems to think the HBO version of the story is still in play; Chloe Sevigny made a few headlines in March of 2011 when HBO announced the development of the two-part miniseries, but it's gone quiet since then.

Let's just assume that it's still a going concern, because a Sevigny/Tom-Hanks-produced iteration of the case would kick ass -- especially if it comes out at the same time as the Ricci version. An embarrassment of gory riches! But who would do it better?

Sevigny makes a more believable Lizzie. It's close, and Ricci is a solid actress, but she's a bit too dark and petite to match Lizzie physically, and Sevigny's work on American Horror Story is great practice for the psychological demands of the Lizzie role.

Winner: HBO.

Other Casting
It's probably unfair to compare them without intel on who else might have joined the HBO project's cast. As impressive as Duvall and Campbell can be, you'd have to think the Hanks imprimatur on Hollywoodized history would attract even bigger names.

And it's just my opinion, but Duvall would work better as the maid, Bridget (and I'm dying to know who's cast in that role).

Working with what we do know, though…
Winner: Lifetime.

The Crime Itself
The nursery rhyme is right about one thing: Lizzie did use a hatchet. Crime-scene photos of her father do exist and are as hideous as you would expect. HBO is demonstrably not afraid to go there, whereas you'd expect Lifetime to soft-pedal the gore.

Who you rank higher here depends on your stomach for monster make-up. I'm a fan of grisly realism.

Winner: HBO.

The Trial
Might depend on their respective takes on Lizzie's innocence. Occam's razor dictates that she's guilty, but the physical evidence is ambiguous. Either way, Lifetime is expert at both lady-psycho stories (see also: their upcoming Jodi Arias flick) and woman-in-peril stories.

Winner: Lifetime.

The Aftermath
After her parents' deaths, Lizzie bought the house she always wanted in the fashionable part of town, and began spending a lot of time with an actress and her company. Many accounts stop juuuuuust short of saying that Lizzie and Nance O'Neil were…you know…Lebanese, while implying that their relationship, whatever its nature, estranged Lizzie from her sister. If that part of Lizzie's bio merits exploration, HBO will do a better job; Lifetime seems likely to skip from the acquittal to the maid's rumored deathbed confession to the credits.

Winner: HBO.

So...Who Will Do It Better?
Like the murders themselves, there's just a lot we don't know: who's playing what, whether HBO is even going to film their Lizzie Borden movie, who's writing the Lifetime version. In a perfect world, HBO sees an opportunity to be the Lizzie 30 Rock to Lifetime's Studio 60 and gets things rolling with Sevigny's team. In this world, we have to dance with the Lizzie what brung us, and since Lifetime's Lizzie is actually happening?

Winner: Lifetime. — SDB, 6/14/13

A Reddit thread on “true crime misconceptions” will pass an hour or two of your time. I had to climb out of the Google hole it sent me down to, you know, get this newsletter finished, but I got interested in a couple of new cases, and I read to the end to see if anyone would post the first one I thought of (handwriting analysis = little more than useless woo). And it’s the second Aunt Diane sighting of the day in these parts, for whatever that’s worth; there are also cameos from the dingo case, Rebecca Zahau, Somerton Man, “a really touching but completely misplaced faith in dogs” (hee), and most of the thread rewriting what their friends and family should say about them in a Dateline talking-head.

What’s the first true-crime misconception you think of? — SDB

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