The Blotter Presents 142: Stolen Babies and The Phoebe Judge Interview

Plus Wood, Weinman, longread Buntnip, and more

Kevin Smokler and I really enjoyed digging into the Criminal mind (don’t get up, I can find the door) with host and co-creator Phoebe Judge. The discussion ranged from the podcast’s production timeline, to where the “I’m Phoebe Judge” line goes in each episode, to thrown-in-the-deep-end reporting, to finding reasons to go to Italy. We’re so glad she took the time, and we hope you’ll enjoy the chat (even though Kevin sounds like he’s at the bottom of a well in 1974).

Criminal’s Georgia Tann episode is what inspired me to find Mary Tyler Moore’s mostly-forgotten turn as Tann in 1993’s Stolen Babies, and to ask Piper Weiss to sit through it with me. I liked it more than Piper did, and more than I expected to, but at the same time…you know. Lifetime movie. And our girl Kathleen Quinlan better have called the police on her accent coach. Listen to Ep 142 here! — SDB

HBO’s Natalie Wood doc, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, premiered last night. I reviewed it for Primetimer, and while I didn’t dislike it, it mostly made me sad for Natasha Gregson Wagner and the rest of the family/production team…because the documentary’s near-compulsive insistence that Wood’s life is more than her mysterious drowning in 1981 means that this drowning completely takes over the proceedings, even when it’s not what’s under discussion. Her death and the focus on it must seem — is, in fact — monstrously unfair to her family, but the harder they fight to push it into the background, the larger it looms.

And as for Robert Wagner’s role in that fatal night, well…

And this is leaving aside the portion of Wagner's interview with his stepdaughter that covers the night Wood died, in which Wagner becomes visibly uncomfortable. The coughing and fidgeting is conspicuous, but nobody comments on it, and decisions were made — or not — around leaving it in and not recommending another interview session. What Remains Behind wants to present Wood's work and Wood's family life and not get into whether she was murdered, but it ALSO wants to reiterate its belief in Wagner's innocence. It can't have it both ways.

I also talk in the piece about other HBO docs that did manage to incorporate a high-profile death or murder into the story of the subject’s life with rueful acceptance, so you might check those out on HBOGo. — SDB

It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday, and while a true-crime round-up newsletter isn’t a traditional gift, maybe your mom — or A mom — in your life might like to stay up to date on all things Theranos, Tiger King, and dads who aren’t the Zodiac. Paid subscriptions let me and Eve keep writing this here newsletter, and paying contributors for their hard work on projects like True Crime A To Z — plus there’s no wasteful packaging and they’re 100% hypo-allergenic and COVID-free. (Well, until all the stories start coming out about price-gauging indictments.)

Dipping back into the archives for S01.E08 of American Crime Story, “A Jury In Jail.” This aired on my birthday in 2016 (drink!), and rereading this coverage from the time, I’m tempted to give myself the gift of a rewatch sometime soon.


I wonder if American Crime Story is so compelling because it understands all the axes along which the real case was so compelling, the way that The People v. OJ Simpson could never manage to "be about" just a single thing. In a perfect world, it would have been: someone killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, and the trial should have "been about" only that, whether OJ Simpson was that someone. The trial didn't take place in a perfect world, though. It took place in Los Angeles.

...Tip your waitress! Seriously, though: the case, the trial, our preoccupation with OJ -- those two letters coming to stand for not just the man but the entire situation and its Hydra of participants -- was "about" the murders, and the pursuit of justice; and it was "about" race in Los Angeles and in America; and it was "about" police corruption, and celebrity, and loyalty, and ethics in journalism, and how you live with two dozen strangers when you're not allowed any live TV.

And each of those issues contained a bunch of other little issues (or big ones), braided into the main one or remora-ing along just above it. I wonder if ACS's brilliant watchability comes out of that complexity, and the company's ability to portray it.

A few moments that "A Jury In Jail" refused to oversimplify, in no particular order:

  1. The jury's intransigence.
    It's...not customary, but let's say that it happens a lot that the "take on" the jury's verdict in The People v. OJ Simpson came out of a twofold desire: to send a message about racist cops, and to get the fuck out of sequester and go home. Certainly it's received wisdom that even jurors who believed the prosecution had met its burden in the case were not willing to dig in for a lengthy fight they would surely lose.

    "A Jury In Jail" makes that motivation quite sympathetic, showing us all the little privations over months on end -- Reader's Digests reviewed for banned material, TVs taken out of hotel rooms, crappy steam-tray food, gossip, papers with whole columns cut out -- that might lead one high-strung juror to charge the sheriff's deputies and try to escape. I've served on exactly one jury to date, and I got to go home, but it still wears you down. So much shuffling. So much droning. Such pathetic food. Whatever your smugly civic-minded intentions when you're seated, by the end of a case that has almost never been presented with even a fraction of the flair you see on The Good Wife or Law & Order, you just want it done. I think a lot of people judge the OJ jurors harshly for that, for just wanting to "do the easy thing" and put the situation behind them. I used to. Then I got called on a podiatry malpractice case.

  2. The jury's division along racial lines.
    The Martin vs. Seinfeld set-to during TV time had my eyes rolling. This is one of those times when, if this is how it really went down, telling it as it really went doesn't work (and not for nothing, but holding up a brick of Blockbuster rentals and making sure we know they're VHS format is a thing writers need to stop doing in projects of that era; one, we get it, and two, nobody called them "VHSes" -- you said "tapes" or "rentals" or "a movie"). It's too on-the-nose, and that one guy grumbling that Seinfeld isn't about anything, oo-fah. WE GOT IT.

    Then the show flips it, cutting to "poker night" in OJ's cell, OJ himself recounting a funny Kramer scene.

  3. Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran: mutual loathing, mutual respect.
    I love how much Clark loves winning and never passes up an opportunity to try to, even if it's shaping up as a Pyrrhic victory. I love how much Cochran also loves it, and respects how much she loves it, and I know these are real people and one of them has passed away, but I wish Clark and Cochran could get a spinoff. This "...nnnnneener!"/"uch, dammit" exchange of looks after yet another juror argument is everything that makes American Crime Story great.

    It's not as simple as saying that each is one side of the same coin; I think Clark had an uncynical passion about the case that Cochran leveraged against her more than once. But Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance convey that sense of two people in opposition, but also alone together in their unique positions, like prisoners of war.

  4. The "rehearsal" of OJ's testimony.
    It almost makes you wish we'd seen him testify after all; what a beautiful disaster that would have been, right up there with Jeffrey MacDonald in the off-putting defendants' hall of fame. We won't see that happen, of course, but what we do see is the show tipping its hand on its opinion of OJ, to wit: he's a glib bully, too used to getting his own way.

  5. "It would convict him. I would convict him."
    Jeffrey Toobin's book has little use for Robert Kardashian or any of the other "friends" Toobin sees more as flunkies and attachments, but you can't help feeling for Kardashian here. He knows OJ killed Ron and Nicole, and as unanswerable evidence piles up, it's not so much that he can no longer avoid seeing the truth, but that he's always known it, and simply didn't move fast enough not to be the last friend standing. Now Kardashian must face that a man he greatly admired, and to an extent used, killed two people and doesn't really regret anything except getting caught, and that to admit now that this is what he believes would hang OJ in the actual court, never mind the court of public opinion.

    But then at the same time there is a top note in Kardashian's panic sweat of concern with how it would look for himself -- not merely that to abandon the fiction of OJ's innocence would look bad for OJ, but that he would look like a shitbird, first gullible, then disloyal. So you feel for him, even though he did this to himself, and then you kind of go back to thinking he deserves to feel crappy if this is one of his besties. — SDB, 3/23/16

In which Sarah Weinman did not come to play. Her longread for, “Serge Rubinstein and the Scourge of Bad Men,” is pretty direct about its…“pro”tagonist:

Yes, Serge's mother loved him. But he was a swindler. A philanderer. A procurer. A draft dodger, sent to federal prison for all of the creative ways he eluded World War II service. An admirer of Napoleon to the point where he dressed as the French Emperor for birthday parties.

Rubinstein, Weinman posits, had it coming from half a dozen different angles, and police “joked [that] there were 10,000 possible suspects at minimum” — but Weinman became obsessed with cracking the case back in the aughts, and thinks she’s done so in this article. Said article could have done with a firmer proofread, but Weinman isn’t messing around when it comes to research, and the visual aids are stunning; give it a look. — SDB

The New Yorker Back-Issue-athon continues today with a prescient 3/4/19 piece by Steve Coll, “The Jail Health-Care Crisis.” This ran just about exactly a year before COVID shit went haywire in a very big way for carceral populations nationwide, and the thrust is two-fold: 1) privatization of medical services for the incarcerated has not helped at-risk populations the way it was (you’d hope) intended to; and 2) those populations — the mentally ill and those struggling with substance abuse — are simultaneously overrepresented in the carceral environment and chronically underserved by it. Coll doesn’t choose to dance with the concept that the criminalization of addiction is creating a multi-generational underclass, and I’m not saying he should, since that could be (and has been) a doorstop-weight book; his narrow focus serves the material well here.

But there IS an almost-throwaway observation I hope becomes an article or podcast episode someday:

Martha Harbin, of Corizon Health, told me that maximizing on-site care “respects the taxpayer dollars used to pay for correctional health care,” and reduces the risk of people escaping from hospitals. (Escapes from hospitals are, in fact, a recurring problem.)

The problem in this article is that situationally suspicious COs and nurse practitioners often err on the side of “s/he’s faking” and don’t send patients to hospitals, but if lamming it out of ERs is really “a recurring problem,” it’s also a Buntnip topic if ever I heard one. If this piece has been written, and well, let me know! — SDB

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