Previously, I blogged about four criminal cases crime writers should watch if they wanted to see first-hand the world of crime, courts, criminals, and lawyers. As a lawyer, I never complained about sitting in court waiting to be heard. I listened to other lawyers arguing their points and interrogating witnesses, while watching the reaction of other people in the courtroom. What I learned about human behavior was incredibly helpful when I began writing crime fiction because a crime story is really a mosaic of people. People accused of committing crimes, people who are victims of crimes, people who are charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes. Judges and juries who must determine the outcome.
Televised, unedited trials offer an invaluable opportunity for writers to observe all these people whose points of view weave together the story of the crime, just as characters do in a crime novel. Here are four new highly publicized cases I have been watching and what I am learning.
THE JENNIFER CRUMBLEY TRIAL
Ethan Crumbley, a minor student, has been convicted of killing four of his fellow students in their high school. In a case of first instance, his parents have been charged with involuntary homicide for being grossly negligent in their duties to supervise their son. The parents are being tried separately with mother’s case proceeding first.
What can a writer learn from such a tragic case? So much, my head spins as I listen to the story unfold. The naked exposure of the shooter’s family brutally demonstrates its disfunction. I’m reminded of William Landing’s Defending Jacob, which ripped out the hearts of many readers. The ripple effect of the tragedy is graphically demonstrated by the school personnel, law enforcement, and others who were called as witnesses.
The procedural aspects of the case are not wasted on this writer. A defense attorney who whines constantly to the judge, a prosecutor who bellows over her like a bully, a judge more patient than Job.
THE GONE MOM TRIAL
This is another unusual criminal case. The mother of five children, including two sets of twins, disappeared while in the process of divorcing her Greek husband, Fotis Dulos, a builder of luxury homes. They were engaged in a bitter custody battle. The mother has been declared legally dead by the court. The husband committed suicide after being charged with her death. But it is his girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, who is charged with conspiracy and other charges secondary to murder. It has been dubbed “The Gone Mom” trial after the book and movie “Gone Girl.” One juror was excused after posting a social media post making a reference to this.
Another family tragedy, the testimony of a devoted, seemingly angelic nanny for the five children set the stage and described the dynamics between husband and wife, bringing the victim to life for the jury. The defendant, who was engaged in a romantic relationship with the husband, has been described as a Venezuelan socialite, who was a competetive water-skiing enthusiast as was Dulos. Although she appears to speak English competently in police interviews, she has been given a Spanish interpreter to ensure her understanding of the legal proceedings.
So far, what I have found most interesting in this case is the police work. I am a fan of police procedurals, which I know some find plodding. But watching the choreography of the state and local police departments coordinating search for evidence from the gritty streets of Hartford to luxury estates in pastoral Farmington with the assistance of a sophisticated camera surveillance system, we are shown the defendant in a pickup driven by Fotis Dolus. Although there is some monotony in observing the multiple videos of them stopping at various spots, it is at the same time riveting to know Dolus is depositing trash bags in public receptacles that are later shown to have contained personal items belonging to the wife. When the prosecutor showed those items one by one, including a bloody bra, shirt, and rain hoodie, to the jury, I could imagine their collective gasp. The fine art of the slow dance: the crescendo of monotony becomes a feverish pitch, the goal of many crime writers.
ALEX MURDAUGH REDUX
Just when we thought the saga of the disgraced lawyer, who was convicted of murdering his wife and son on their spacious southern low country farm in South Carolina, was over except for an appeal, a new controversy arose calling into question the verdict rendered against Alex Murdaugh. The court clerk, who later wrote and published a book about the case, was accused of attempting to influence jurors. An investigation ensued and a new judge was assigned. That judge questioned the twelve jurors and the alternate. She also inquired of the clerk and a clerk from another county who assisted in the case. Although there was testimony that the clerk did try to sway the jury, the judge denied the motion for a new trial based on legal standards and precedent. We will now have stacked appeals, so stay tuned.
Local flavor is the lesson for writers from the Murdaugh case, otherwise known as setting. When lawyers are addressing court clerks as “Miss Becky” and “Miss Rhonda,” you know you are in the South. Humor runs throughout the proceedings. Anecdotal comments are allowed and appreciated. There is a comfy, informal, yet polite blanket covering court business. As I watched the day-long hearing, I couldn’t help but think how different it would be in Boston. No one would dare call a court clerk “Miss” anything. I don’t picture any of the lawyers throwing out anecdotal comments. While not entirely humorless, the courtroom would be formal. I was reminded that where a writer’s story takes place can be as important as what happens.
I also learned that what seems like a standalone can turn into a series. Alex Murdaugh has at least four installments. Watch.
THE KAREN READ TRIAL
Put this one on your watch list. Karen Read is charged with second degree murder of her boyfriend, Boston police officer John O’Keefe, in a Boston suburb where the community is divided over the case. Read’s attorneys have alleged a coverup. She has a strong group of vocal supporters who demonstrate on her behalf at the courthouse, including a blogger who has been charged with witness intimidation. Read’s phones have been seized in connection with that probe. Here, a writer may learn about plot and subplot and where the lines cross.
Did Karen Read run over her boyfriend in a fury on a snowy night or did something happen in the home of a fellow police officer where he ended up dead in the snowy driveway? Stay tuned.
Please jump in and share any case that has helped you as a crime writer.
C. Michele Dorsey is the author of Oh Danny Girl and the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, Tropical Depression, and Salt Water Wounds. Her latest novel, Gone But Not Forgotten was published by Severn House. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.