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Murder

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.

lost girls

Yesterday I started reading Robert Kolker’s new book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. It’s a meticulously researched and truly engrossing look at the lives of four women who ended up murdered as a result of their work as Craigslist prostitutes. But more than that, it’s an account of their lives and what might have led them to such dangerous and ultimately fatal circumstances.

This is from Nina Burleigh’s review of the book for the New York Observer:

Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.

They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.

Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.

This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girls is that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs.

UntitledNobody does a good true-crime investigative magazine piece like Texas Monthly, specifically journalists Skip Hollandsworth and Pamela Colloff.

It’s been several months since I read Colloff’s piece “Hannah and Andrew,” which I believe was nominated for a National Magazine Award — or if it wasn’t, it should have been — and I am still thinking about it. (I do know that Colloff won an AMA this year for another piece, the two-part “The Innocent Man,” which is also an amazing read if you’ve got the time.)

The “Hannah and Andrew” case centers on a foster mother wrongly accused of poisoning her troubled four-year-old foster child with… salt. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

But I digress. What prompted me to post today was that I just read one of Hollandsworth’s pieces, “If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us,” which focuses on the difficulty of pursuing a serial killer who targets black prostitutes. (Cue collective societal shrug.) Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s like we did all this work to clean everything up, and life out there is already back to normal,” [Detective Darcus Shorten] said. 
She hung up and parked near a group of prostitutes on a street corner. She got out of the car and asked if they knew anything about a man with a knife.

The prostitutes stared at Shorten in her business suit and silver jewelry, and they started to laugh. “Baby, there’s always a man with a knife,” one of them said, and then she and the others turned away.

Wow. Amazing writing. Sad state of affairs.

Also recommended: An interview with Colloff about her writing and reporting process behind “Hannah and Andrew.”

"Are you going to kill this woman?"

“Are you going to kill this woman?” BRILLIANT.

So I hate to keep harping on the Jodi Arias story. Even I had reached a media saturation point by the time the verdict was finally read on May 8 after more than four months of trial. And I was beginning to feel like I needed to take a shower every time Jodi’s name was mentioned. That, and I had the very bad luck to stumble upon, in a HuffPost slideshow, an actual unedited crime scene photo of Travis’ body in the shower — the kind the mainstream media is forbidden to show by those pesky legal people down in Standards. (Arianna, God bless her little heart, has zero standards or scruples.)

But recent events have brought me back to overthinking this whole thing. I mean, the trial and its ensuing media coverage is essentially an exercise in American Cultural Studies at this point, as rabid Jodi followers like me, having stuck it out this long, have invested way too much for it to be considered merely morbid gawking. (Or so we tell ourselves.)

But I feel I must write today. The fact that the jury is apparently having a hard time conferring the death penalty by mere reflex — as everyone who’s ever come into contact with the HLN coverage of this trial, however tangentially, would presumably do, keeping in adherence with the rhetorical “JUSTICE FOR TRAVIS”-ethos — is sending all the daytime television talking heads into a tailspin this afternoon.

It’s kind of like when we had to wait a whole TWO AND A HALF DAYS before the verdict came in after the guilt phase of the deliberations began. The fact of her first-degree guilt had already been a central tenet of media coverage, so why was it even a question about what the verdict should be? Dumb jurors! Stop thinking and start being outraged and indignant!

To which I say: take it easy, people, this is a big fucking decision to have weighing on this jury’s shoulders, so let’s let these people actually do what they were sworn in to do and carefully consider all the evidence.

Also, what really astonished me today, listening to the jury instructions (which the Hon. Sherry Stephens, God bless HER little heart, originally misread), is that there’s no hard and fast criteria for deciding on death. Like, the circumstances can be “heinous,” but what does that really mean? Are there legal definitions of that stuff? Because otherwise, it seems pretty subjective.

So it comes down to an emotional decision. One in which you have to take complete moral accountability for your decision, since you weren’t merely following protocol or legal precedent. Yes, that WOULD be heavy.

************

On another note, while I think Jodi might not make a great as good of a prison social worker/hair donator/translator/literacy doyenne/recycling entrepreneur as she claims she would, she’s got a FABULOUS personality for reality television. The narcissism, the insistence on proper hair and makeup… the sex, the lies… the abject desperation, the unwitting campiness… it’s all there!

After reading “The Saddest Reality Stars of All: Prisoners” by the Daily Beast’s great Mansfield Frazier, who does a lot of crime-and-punishment coverage and commentary, you might see why a star turn on Bravo’s forthcoming The Real Housewives of Death Row might be the most fitting punishment of all for Jodi.

Also: ratings bonanza!

*Unless you’re pregnant and waiting for a bus in Honolulu… in which case it could take FOREVER.

verdictThe New York Times continued its uncharacteristic coverage of the Jodi Arias trial today with an interesting piece by Fernanda Santos on the emotional difficulty jurors face in deciding whether to sentence someone to the death penalty.

Santos quotes a former Florida juror named Alison Ward on the admittedly “bizarre” phenomenon of imposing a death sentence on someone who is being punished for… putting someone to death (i.e., murder).

“Reality is nothing like you see on TV,” Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury, which agreed on a death penalty sentence, as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called “a measure of justice that is bizarre” — a death as a sentence for a killing.

Yes, it is bizarre, but just look at the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered at the Maricopa County Courthouse to hear the verdict (see NYT photo above) — many of whom would doubtless insist that the gruesome first-degree murder of Travis Alexander merits capital punishment for the now-convicted Arias. Perhaps they gleaned this lynch-mob mentality from watching HLN, where indignant anchors like Nancy Grace served as jury, judge, and executioner long before the verdict was read on May 8.

Yesterday, the trial hit another snag during its first day of the aggravation phase; court was abruptly cancelled until Wednesday of next week and no explanation was given. Meanwhile, Arias was placed on suicide watch and is currently undergoing some sort of psychiatric evaluation.

I have put off posting about the Jodi Arias case until a verdict came in. And yesterday, finally, more than four months after this absolute circus of a trial began, a jury of twelve (infinitely patient) people handed Ms. Arias a first-degree murder conviction for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. (Why on earth this case took so long to go to trial is something I have never heard explained in the media — was it because Arias changed her story so many times?)

Okay. I have lots of thoughts about this trial and what it says about how the public perceives (take your pick) women/sex/violence/the criminal justice system/the death penalty. But for now, I’ll focus on immediate media coverage of the verdict.

Let’s begin with HLN, since the cable news-lite network has made the Arias trial its raison d’etre, carrying out near 24-hour coverage of the spectacle since it began in January, even going so far as to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene and assembling a mock jury every night to weigh in on the day’s evidence.

Not surprisingly, I was greeted by this on the HLN homepage today, front and center, or what used to be deemed in ancient newspaper days as “above the fold:”

verdict

Because the Arias case has all along been a tabloid trial–that is, covered breathlessly by what we might think of as the trashy/sensationalistic/if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media–it’s no surprise that the classy Daily News also delivered the verdict above the fold in its second slot. (I can only imagine it would have been first had the bombshell Cleveland kidnapping rescue not happened his week.) The News also had a scoop: that Arias, ever the narcissistic wannabe-media-darling, is now declaring in trademark dramatic fashion that she would rather be put to death than spend the rest of her life in prison. (My question: who gave her the lipgloss for her first post-verdict interview? And don’t they, like, carry a convicted first-degree murderer directly off to jail at that point? As in, do not pass go, do not sit down for a soft-focus television interview?)

halfway verdict

Next let’s head over to the New York Times, which has studiously ignored the trial up until now. The Grey Lady conceded some coverage today, but only alluded to it in the most generic of terms, and waaaaay far down the page at that, in its “U.S.” section. (I had to add a red circle around it ’cause it’s pretty tiny.)

small verdict

Moving on! The liberal intellectuals over at NPR, to my surprise, did carry an Arias headline, albeit without a photo, right on their homepage, but not without a fight from its highbrow readers, some of whom were just plain disgusted that public media would stoop so low. Here’s an excerpt from the article’s comment section:

who cares verdict

More thoughts on the trial later.

knox

Amanda Knox’s memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard,” is set to be released next week, and I will not read it, at least partly because I am not altogether convinced she is totally blameless in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy the fall of 2007. I won’t bother to rehash the facts of the case because I’m pretty sure you already know them.

Now, I know Knox already scored a $4 million advance on the book, but the thought of her profiting further from “her side of the story,” which could potentially be total bullshit, makes me sick to my stomach.

I bring this up because the New York Times’ usually astute Michiko Kakutani has a review of the book this week, though I hesitate to call it a real review because it doesn’t say anything substantial about the book’s merits. Of course, it’s not Kakutani’s job to decide Knox’s guilt or innocence. But I do think this so-called memoir is trashy tabloid shit pretty much unworthy of Times coverage, to say nothing of the fact that it’s framed in even faintly glowing praise:

She spent a lot of time in prison writing journals, poems, stories, letters, even lists of what she would do with her life (i.e., things she would do if she got out immediately, or things she would do if she were 46 when she were released). All that practice and all that introspection have given her an ability to convey her emotions with considerable visceral power — the shock of feeling the supremely ordinary morph into the utterly surreal, the vulnerability of being on trial in a foreign country in a language she had not completely mastered, the isolation of being in prison and at the center of a swirling media storm… In the end her book is not only an effort to make a case for her innocence but it’s also a kind of bildungsroman.

But let’s entertain the notion that Knox did have anything to do with Kercher’s murder. (Which would practically be blasphemy to the press here in the U.S.!) Does Kakutani’s critique hold up if the book is in fact a work of fiction? I think it would have been worthwhile — or at the very least, amusing — for the reviewer to wonder aloud about that possibility.

NB: Another thoughtful writer, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, has now also weighed in on Knox’s memoir — but, like Kakutani, she seems less interested in Knox’s version of “truth” than in the college student’s attitudes towards casual sex. Okay…?