Robert Durst · Rogue Midwifery · World's-Oldest Fraud

Plus an NYC wrongful conviction, and a call for pitches

Good morning! Eve and I hope you’re all hanging in there during this strange, scary time. A couple of announcements to kick off the week:

  1. Best Evidence is going out to all subscribers all week. Forward it, trade it, collect the whole set!

  2. Now’s a great time to request/recommend coverage! Don’t let my man B. Held have all the fun on Twitter; if you want a new series or old doc added to our coverage list, reach out! editorial at bestevidence dot fyi, OR call/text us, 919-75-CRIME.

  3. Now’s also a great time to pitch! I will not act like we pay well; we do not. But we do pay, and we’d love to hear your ideas for reviews, rankings, and more. Tell a friend (or articulate rival)!

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A handful of longread recs to fill your morning starts with Jennifer Block’s “The Criminalization of the American Midwife” for Longreads. Between catching up on Call The Midwife on Netflix and living in Brooklyn, a regional center for de-medicalizing strategies like midwifery, it never would have occurred to me that the question of midwife licensing and regulation hadn’t been settled long ago — like, “1790s” long ago. But it still hasn’t been, and thanks to cost-punitive educational requirements, local DAs feeling like they have to criminalize bad birth “outcomes,” and other factors, providers like Elizabeth Catlin are getting charged with dozens and dozens of offenses for operating outside the official state purview. Here’s a particularly bright bit of writing from Block’s piece:

Local news quoted a joint investigation by state police and the Office of Professional Discipline that Catlin had been “posing as a midwife” and “exploiting pregnant women within the Mennonite community, in and around the Penn Yan area.”

Catlin’s apparent connection with a local OB-GYN practice, through which she had opened a lab account, would prompt a second arrest in December, the Friday before Christmas, and more felony charges: identity theft, falsifying business records, and second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. That time, she spent the night in jail watching the Hallmark Channel. When she walked into the hearing room at 8:00 a.m., again in chains, she was met by dozens of women in grey-and-blue dresses and white bonnets.

I found the piece extra-thought-provoking…[gestures vaguely] given everything, specifically 1. that non-COVID healthcare is going to be operating at the margins of our attention for a while, despite the fact that, you know, people don’t stop having car accidents and babies don’t stop getting born etc. etc.; and 2) midwives serve an economic sector whose fortunes aren’t going to improve thanks to this crisis, making their services and expertise — and the literal community they support — even more important. — SDB


Next up is a New Yorker piece by Jennifer Gonnerman on Eric Smokes and David Warren, sentenced as teenagers for a murder that occurred in the first hours of 1987, and their efforts to get their convictions vacated. Titled “Burden Of Proof” in the physical magazine, the piece has every maddening aspect of the wrongful-conviction case: police interrogations of vulnerable teenagers, both the suspects and those in their circle who were offered leniency in exchange for screwing over their friends; compromised prosecution witnesses; DAs who refuse to admit to a mistake; a judge who “was known as one of the toughest judges in the city, and had embraced the nickname Maximum Scott.”

Smokes and Warren are out, having served their sentences; at this point, the priority is to get the system to admit that it got their case wrong. The system, meanwhile, is content to portray this mission as a money grab (if their convictions are voided, that theoretically opens the door to a civil suit against the city/its prosecutors, and while the men insist it’s not about the money, I for one would be okay with it if it were). — SDB


And finally, another one from a February New Yorker about the oldest woman who ever lived — OR WAS SHE?! My work schedule hasn’t changed substantively thanks to social distancing; as a home worker and emerita agoraphobe, I’m pretty well socially distanced already, so the only real change is that I’m having to cook, and maybe the real crime story here is about to be Dan murdering me sometime around the middle of next week for knowing exactly three dishes? Point is, I have a big backlog of magazines, but not the newfound time to chop down the pile you might think. Nevertheless, I persisted, and could bring you a slightly lighter crime story that quite possibly isn’t a crime at all…

Arlésienne Jeanne Calment died more than 20 years ago at the age of 122, a number that had been “validated” during her lifetime…but recently, Russian researchers got their conspiracy on about the possibility that she wasn’t 122 years old. In fact, maybe she wasn’t even herself. (Circumstantial evidence for the fraud centers on a real-estate transaction, because of course it does; it’s like Florida Man for crime stories about richies.) The story is one of those where you turn each page expecting to see that New Yorker-brand diamond denoting the end, but hoping you won’t, because the trip is such fun — and good news; this one’s quite long! Lauren Collins does a great job weaving in all the various threads here: Arles pride, the science and the cultural import of “supercentenarians,” and the ways communities — online and otherwise — love to take sides in a proving-a-negative conspiracy dispute like the one over Calment. — SDB


Robert Durst’s murder trial has been suspended thanks to hay fever. …Yeah, no: it’s thanks to coronavirus concerns, but I just wanted a teeny tiny break from typing the phrase “coronavirus concerns.” (I also didn’t want to know that Durst has the same taste in shirts from Jos. A Bank as my husband, and now I can’t UN-know it.)

But we’re not suspending our discussion of All Good Things, the Gosling/Dunst movie from 2010 that baaaarely fictionalized the Durst case, on this week’s The Blotter Presents (chime in on “Vanity Fair movies” in our open thread here!), and since Andrew Jarecki directed both AGT and The Jinx, why not raid the archives for my Jinx coverage on Previously.tv? I’ll post the rest throughout the week; let’s start with my New Show Fact Sheet.

*******

What is this thing?

Robert Durst, a New York real-estate heir and (allegedly) murderous weirdo, is one of those tristate terrors who becomes part of the fabric of growing up/living around here, like Cropsey or Etan Patz. He's been accused of three murders in the last thirty years, and convicted of none of them. The Jinx is the result of a seven-year investigation into these (technically) unsolved crimes, and the only project that has Durst's cooperation, as the filmmakers try to figure out exactly what happened, and why.

When is it on?

Sundays at 8 PM (...huh.) on HBO.

Why now?

Well, because it's finished -- but let's back up a bit. The filmmakers, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, shot a fictional take on the 1982 disappearance of Kathie Durst called All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. According to Dunst, Durst lurked around the set and watched from a distance; according to The Jinx, Durst saw the flick and called Jarecki directly to offer Jarecki an interview. He felt Jarecki understood the case better than anyone. (Read: "Didn't think Durst is guilty." Jarecki isn't new to getting subjects to cooperate, and is more than happy to bullshit Durst about not coming to the project with preconceived notions others might; it's hard to believe Durst doesn't see through that, but on the other hand, Jarecki is probably the only person left in the eastern time zone who can even pretend not to think Durst killed everyone he's accused of killing, at least. ...Aaaaanyway.)

So, it's "now" because it's done, and because HBO is home to prestigious miniseries, tons of documentaries, and True Detective -- and The Jinx hopes it's right in the middle of that Venn.

What's its pedigree?

HBO; Durst himself (Investigation Discovery's Vanity Fair Confidential also revisited the case(s) via Ned Zeman's 2002 article about Durst, but only The Jinx has him on-camera); Jarecki and Smerling produced Capturing The Friedmans and Catfish (the movie). Jarecki also wrote music for Felicity, which has nothing to do with anything but endears him to me nevertheless.

Durst is nutty, killy, and richer than God -- the true-crime subject trifecta.

...And?

The Jinx does not fuck around. It takes us right to the discovery of the body of Morris Black in Galveston, TX in 2000 -- or rather the torso of Morris Black, which fetched up next to a kid who was fishing. Black's arms and legs turned up shortly afterwards in plastic trash bags. And we see everything thanks to crime-scene photos: trash bags, torso, limbs, the works. This is unusual. Regardless of medium, true-crime stories generally decline to show you anything substantively horrible; from the yearbook pictures in the middle of the paperback to the tasteful B-roll of the exterior of a house on 48 Hours, it's always photos about or near the murder, not of the murdered. I understand why this is so, but at the same time, I could do without the coyness. If we're going to look at these crimes, we ought to look at them head-on, then, and I like that The Jinx doesn't blink.

(Galveston detective Gary Jones describing just how he removed the torso from the water is much worse with no visual anyway. My esteemed colleague Tara Ariano and I both felt he could have used a net...or lied that he had.)

The rest of the first episode is put together very well, too. Jones and Cody Cazalas (what a name! he should be an animated sheriff or something) of GPD do a great job walking us through the examination of Black's body, items found with the body, how those items led back to a rooming squat where Black's neighbor, "Dorothy Ciner," was a deaf-mute lady with a flat chest who traveled a lot; funny how she's not home right now and her apartment has no sign that a woman lives there.

Mmmmmmmm-hmm.

The story unfolds -- Durst is picked up, pays his bail, jumps it, and gets busted shoplifting a hoagie in Pennsylvania (one of the great dumb-crook details in the history of the genre) when he had $500 on him -- intercut with 2000 police interviews with Debrah Lee Charatan, Durst's wife, who can't remember when she married Durst when it was less than a year prior; Durst's brother Douglas, who hired his family a security detail to protect them from Durst when the senior members of the family booted Bob out of the family business; and former Westchester DA Jeanine Pirro, who's still determined to nail Durst for killing his wife Kathie twenty years ago.

And with Durst, who talks to Debrah on the phone about how "comfy" his prison uni is, and smirks at a news camera during his perp walk, and calls his brother a pussy. Durst isn't dumb; he's very very clever, and really weird, and he's...not in jail. He's a fascinating guy, and he's at the center of three "unsolved" murders, the most fascinating kind. That the filmmakers started from a place where Durst was eager to help them with the story, versus having to shoot around him and pray he'd agree to break his silence, is key, because he's a fantastic choice of subject, but if he won't play ball, you kind of end up with a live-action Wikipedia entry.

...But?

See above re: Jarecki's "agenda." If the filmmakers won't take a position on Durst's guilt, or want us to believe they won't because blah "objectivity" blah, The Jinx could get annoying. It's neither undesirable nor impossible to make a true-crime series without knowing/caring whether your subject committed the crime in question, uuuuunless you've already become part of the story, as Jarecki has by 1) making All Good Things and 2) putting himself and his co-producer into the narrative.

Wouldn't stop me from watching it, though. Neither would the credits (inappropriately REM-video artsy, IMO), and the reenactments (not demarcated clearly enough). As a production, it's maybe a bit impressed with itself.

...So?

It probably should be. The Jinx looks so far like a serious Serial-depth investigation into a case that's stuck in the craw of justice since Reagan was in office, with none of the ankle-high production "values" and cookie-cutter structure or limp gotchas we Dateline season-pass veterans have grudgingly learned to live with. I don't know where it's going and I can't wait to find out. — SDB, 2/6/15


Tuesday on Best Evidence: ID’s book club, R. Kelly’s new charges, and more.


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