Sex, Murder and Madness: Lessons From a Gilded Age Trial

The murder of notable New York architect Sanford White by a jealous husband in 1906 thrust young actress and model Evelyn Nesbit  into the center of  the first so-called  “trial of the century.” Simon Baatz, author of a new book about the case, explains why it still matters today.

Evelyn Nesbit may have been America’s first celebrity model. In the early years of the 20th century, the 16-year-old was courted by companies hoping to market her beauty and by some of the country’s richest men hoping to win her favors.

But a murder trial turned her into a notorious footnote of U.S. legal history.

On June 25, 1906, her then-husband, railroad heir Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered New York architect Stanford White, in what his lawyers argued was a fit of insanity to avenge White’s alleged rape of Nesbit a few years earlier.  Quickly dubbed by New York media “the trial of the century” (arguably, the first time the phrase was ever used), it has fueled multiple books and even a movie. But the debate over the facts of the case—and Nesbit’s role in the trial⸺continues to this day.

The newest  book in the genre is The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,  In a conversation with The Crime Report, author Simon Baatz, a professor of history at John Jay College, argues that the trial offers some intriguing modern lessons about the role of money in sensational criminal cases, the use of the insanity defense, and the politics of  prosecuting rape.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of the conversation.

The Crime Report: Unlike many non-fiction books, yours reads like a literary piece of work.  What did you rely on in your research to be able to write so intimately about what the characters were feeling?

Simon Baatz:  Evelyn Nesbit was the main witness in the first trial. There were 14 daily newspapers in New York at the time, and I went through probably about eight of them. It was page after page after page in all of the newspapers, and they printed all of the testimony verbatim. After the trial, her autobiography [Prodigal Days: The Untold Story of Evelyn Nesbit] goes into all the detail again and says what she was thinking and feeling. Nothing is imagined. Evelyn was also paid $30,000 to be a consultant on the 1955 movie [Girl on the Red Velvet Swing]. But as I said right at the end of the book, you never know what the truth is. You never know if that rape ever happened.

TCR: Throughout the trials, Nesbit’s rape is used to justify Thaw’s murder of Stanford White. It’s only in the Afterword that you mention it is impossible to verify the veracity of the rape.

Simon Baatz

Simon Baatz

Baatz: In her autobiography, she does not say the rape didn’t happen, but she presents the whole evening as a much more benign thing, that in fact she was unconscious, but White didn’t deliberately try. She testified under oath at two trials that the rape had happened. But Thaw’s lawyers may have put pressure on her to testify that the rape happened and to lie. She was only 21 when the first trial happened. The lawyers were paid very high fees. They wanted to get [Thaw] off the electric chair—there was a real possibility that he could have ended up on the electric chair. So you have no idea where the truth lies.

TCR: There is a precedent of women having the veracity of their sexual accusations questioned, so why in Evelyn’s case would she be lying about the assault unless her rape was a tool that Harry Thaw was using to justify Stanford White’s murder?

Baatz: But that’s the way he did use it. Everything that comes out of the trial is to appeal to the jury, is to say this was a terrible thing that happened to his wife. She was raped, she was drugged, and therefore the jury would acquit him out of sympathy.   And the thing that I found very curious and interesting was that this defense, although there is no law anywhere that says, yes, a husband can kill a man who assaulted his wife, on many, many occasions, especially in the southern states, a husband would kill the man who was having an affair with his wife over adultery, and the jury would decide a verdict of not guilty, so this defense had been used many times before.

TCR: Like a form of vigilante justice?

Baatz: Yes, exactly, and the jury would disregard the fact that a murder had actually happened and would vote not guilty. So they were hoping to use this defense again in this case.  But I tried to avoid being very explicit on doubting her word. It was very delicate for me. I don’t want to say Evelyn Nesbit is lying. What I said is she may have perjured herself because of the attorneys. All those men may have put pressure on her to do that. You know, she had no education, no profession, nothing on which she could fall back on.

There was no social security, there was nothing that we now take for granted in terms of safety net. She was on her own, so she was in a very powerless position, and those attorneys and her husband could have cut her off without a penny if she hadn’t testified the way they wanted her to testify.

Stanford White

Stanford White via Wikkipedia

TCR: Let’s discuss Stanford White’s role in Evelyn Nesbit’s life when she first moves to New York from Philadelphia.  He finances the family’s lifestyle. How is it that Evelyn’s mother Florence accepts his money without ever questioning his motives?

Baatz: It’s probably difficult for us to put ourselves into the situation that Evelyn’s mother was in. That she also had no way to make a living. There was literally no safety net. Her daughter has found some means of employment, some income as a model, but that’s still kind of precarious because how long is that going to last? And suddenly White comes along, portrays himself as this kind of disinterested guardian and, under the circumstances, who is to judge Florence? Is Florence going to turn down White’s money when he seems to be just treating her like royalty?  That’s part of the explanation.

Everyone said he was a very charming man, a very genial character, and she would have had no reason to believe otherwise. She would have had no evidence about the things that he did or didn’t do.

TCR: After her association with Stanford White, Evelyn ends up marrying Harry Thaw, heir to the Pittsburgh railroad fortune, who has a bit of a sinister reputation even before the murder. What do you make of her relationship with Harry?

Baatz: Why would you marry someone who might have come across at times as mentally unstable? A lot of people would recount that for instance if he was in a restaurant and something happened that displeased him, maybe a waiter didn’t bring his meal quickly, he would often just pull the cloth and all the dishes would fall smash onto the floor. You know, he would just trash a restaurant and then he would just give over however much money needed.

It’s difficult to explain unless you realize that she was someone who had no resources to fall back upon, and here was this seemingly nice man who was willing to have her as a wife, who was offering her security.

But Evelyn stood by her husband. It’s quite amazing that she was willing to go in public and testify on the aspects of her life that really reflected poorly on her. It was humiliating. The only way you can explain it is that she was very, very young.

TCR: There is a recurring theme in the book that Evelyn didn’t have to testify in Harry Thaw’s trials. You write that “the tragedy of Evelyn’s life” was that there had been no necessity for her testify, or to give up her privacy and reputation in the process.

Evelyn Nesbit testifying at trial via Flickr

Baatz: The first trial is in 1907 and she testifies then. She is the principle witness. In the second trial in 1908, she repeats exactly the same story. By then he’s in a mental asylum [where he was confined after a verdict that found him not guilty by reason of insanity], and he wants her to move to the village of Fishkill, NY, to be near him in the asylum. She doesn’t want to do that. She stays in Manhattan and there are reports of her being seen in restaurants with men. He’s sitting in the asylum reading the newspaper accounts and he gradually begins to stir himself up into this frenzy of jealousy and very quickly after he is in the asylum they basically separate and have nothing to do with each other.

And I think that causes her to think: Should I then be testifying on his behalf in the future? What am I getting out of it? And the answer is , I am getting nothing out of it. And then he stops making the payments on the house on Park Avenue. She has to move into a small studio, and eventually she becomes a witness for the state when he’s in the asylum.

He goes through all these appeals afterwards. What I left out of the book is that there are all these other lawsuits. So for example, he would go through all these lawyers and fire them as soon as the case was over and hire a new set of lawyers. But the family was very slow in paying the lawyers. So the lawyers took the family to court for payment, and when those lawsuits were heard, details came out that revealed that the lawyers in previous trials had perjured themselves over bribed witnesses, so the district attorney would then go after those lawyers and prosecute those lawyers.

TCR: The trial raises issues that are relevant today. People with means can hire lawyers who will build a strong defense case for their clients. Someone who can’t afford a lawyer doesn’t have the same advantages. That was one of the questions I had as a reader: was Harry Thaw acting rationally and with intent when he killed Stanford White?

Baatz: On one side you could say, yeah he was acting rationally because here is this man walking around. Suppose Harvey Weinstein got away with no punishment? A lot of people would find that outrageous, and in fact a lot of people have found it outrageous that for many, many years he’s been doing all these things and there’s been absolutely no consequences whatsoever. In fact, the consequences are whether he becomes more and more famous, more and more Oscars. So a lot of people would be very upset and angry about that; but we have some reasonable thought that Weinstein is going to be prosecuted. That people like Kevin Spacey are probably going to be prosecuted, and therefore no one is taking the law into their own hands.

With White, he was not going to be prosecuted, he was walking around, this was five years after the rape had happened. White was  a man about town, and I could understand that Harry Thaw would get upset to see this, and he’s in love with his wife. He treasures his wife. He wants the marriage to work out, and she’s telling him about this dreadful rape that happened, which was that she was drugged, she was lured to the building under false pretenses, she thought there was going to be a party. She was then drugged with the wine, she was unconscious. She wakes up naked next to this man who is three times her age, and there is blood on the sheets.

All the previous authors described this as a seduction but that word never appears in my book. There is nothing about this that is seducing because when you say seduction there is an implication of consensual behavior. If you’re 16, can anything really be consensual?

What really annoyed me no end was all these people calling it a seduction. How did it come about that people are calling this a seduction? And my best answer is that in the 1950s people started to rediscover McKim, Mead, and White, and rediscover Stanford White. By the 1920s all that architecture fell out of fashion, and in 1925 Madison Square Garden, which was a beautiful building, was torn down. Part of the reason why they described this as a seduction was because they are writing these books about Stanford White as the best architect in New York City’s history, and it would be really inconvenient to have him as a pedophile and as a rapist.

A lot of people actually claim that she was the person at fault. That she was responsible for all of this. It’s so false. He is 47, she is 16. She has no knowledge of society. How could she be responsible? It’s just absurd.

TCR:  Evelyn’s story is very much tied to America’s Gilded Age, with wealthy industrialist families such as the Thaws and the Carnegies exerting great influence on American society and culture. Please put that in the context of the transformation New York was undergoing at the time.

Baatz: New York City is changing enormously in these years. From about 1880 onward, huge numbers of immigrants are coming in from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. I think, though, there is very little contact, almost zero contact, between what’s going on on the Lower East Side with the immigrants coming in, Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, there is almost no contact between that world and the world of Stanford White, which is separate uptown.

The only contact probably would have been prostitutes from the immigrant neighborhoods who were coming uptown and working the streets around Madison Square and that part of town. But Stanford White himself probably never went down to the immigrant neighborhoods, and the only time Harry did was when he was in the police station in Mott Street, which is right in the heart of the Italian immigrant neighborhood, and I think the book reflects the reality that there was no contact between these worlds.

The other thing we have difficulty understanding is that people in those days didn’t really travel. They certainly didn’t travel outside New York City because it was too expensive to go anywhere. They certainly didn’t travel to Europe. Only the rich could do that.  I don’t think people even traveled much within New York City. If you were living down on what is now Canal Street, and your work is there, and your apartment is near Canal Street, there is little reason for you to be wanting to go uptown to Madison Square.

TCR: During Thaw’s trials, Anthony Comstock, who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, campaigned for decades against obscenity.  And yet, Harry Thaw’s situation and subsequently lurid trials actually generated a lot of sympathy from the public. What was the criminal justice system like in early 20th century New York?

Baatz: The Society for the Suppression of Vice was a private organization and somehow Comstock got enormous influence, perhaps because it was seen as the only effective agency campaigning against pornography, against birth control. Congress can only deal with things that are across state lines. So the only influence they could have was to prevent anything being sent by mail across state lines, and within a state you would have to go to the state legislature to deal with it, so he was very successful in getting Congress to pass this law against transmitting obscene literature across state lines.

There is a wonderful book called Crimes Against Children by Stephen Robertson and there were a whole lot of articles written by historians within the last 15 years, about child abuse in this period, about pornography, about prostitution. In 1895 the New York State legislature passed a series of laws, including one that raised the age of consent from ten to 18. And they also vastly changed the laws on rape.

Before 1895, to prosecute someone on the charge of rape you had to have corroboration that it had occurred, which of course is close to impossible. [You had] to demonstrate that the woman had resisted, that she had fought back, and this would be evidence that this was presumably not consensual.

It’s quite a radical change. After 1895 just to have intercourse with someone younger than 18, by definition was illegal, was rape, and the penalty was a minimum of ten years in the penitentiary, plus a fine. So it’s very significant.

The other thing as you say is that whenever Harry Thaw appeared in public, huge crowds turn out for him, and the popular feeling was that Thaw should be released, he did nothing wrong, so the public attitude towards all of this is incredibly favorable.

TCR: Did Stanford White’s murder and Harry Thaw’s trials affect law enforcement at that time?

Baatz: I can’t say I know a great deal more about this because the other thing is that it’s not easy to find out information. Someone made the point: how much attention were the newspapers paying to a normal rape case when the people were not famous? And the answer is very little. If it appeared in the newspaper at all it would be two or three lines.

What’s different about this case is that it just took up pages and pages because of the celebrity of the people involved. You have Stanford White whom everybody knows, who is responsible for some of the most beautiful buildings in New York; you have this chorus girl and the fact that she is in the theater, anybody involved in the theater was by definition disreputable; and you have very, very wealthy people involved. It all made for a very sensational case.

evelyn nesbitt

Nesbit dodging photographers during trial. photo via Flickr

TCR: What role did newspapers play in the trials?

Baatz:  Evelyn’s testimony was deliberately graphic, because the more graphic she made it, the worse it would portray Stanford White, and therefore the more justification Harry would have for killing him. I think what appeared in the daily newspapers was so unprecedented, for Americans to read about, and very shocking. To us it wouldn’t appear shocking at all.

It was also really the golden age of American newspapers.  Chicago in 1924 had six daily newspapers; New York City had 14 daily newspapers. There was no radio, no television, no internet. So the newspapers had enormous influence in what was reported and what was written about, and everybody bought a newspaper. these newspapers were tremendously influential, tremendously powerful, and very accessible.  They played a role in shaping how people perceive these things.

TCR: If as you say the trials were printed in such a way to justify Thaw’s murder charges, the newspapers at the time didn’t demonstrate any journalistic objectivity. Why were the newspapers taking Thaw’s defense?

Baatz: Partly because Stanford White wasn’t around to defend himself. The other thing is that the Thaw family was very energetic in pushing their case. I didn’t mention it in the book but they financed a play that was playing in a theater in New York City. They financed at least one movie, a silent movie, which was probably one of the first movies ever produced, and they made this huge publicity campaign. I think there were also clues that they were actually paying some journalists to write articles for magazines that would be favorable to the Thaw family, and all of Stanford White’s friends kind of scattered.

TCR: No one came to White’s defense?

Baatz: Very few people came to his defense.  His wife Bessie lived in Long Island, and she was obviously completely humiliated because she’d been living this upper class life as a respectable society lady, and suddenly all this information about her husband’s secret life is coming out, so she’s really not going to be out there defending him.

TCR: In 1913, Harry Thaw manages to successfully escape from the asylum in Fishkill and flees to Canada, where he also experiences public support, but Canadian authorities still want him out of the country. Since he couldn’t be prosecuted for a crime he had committed in New York State, what grounds do they have to force him to return to the US?

Baatz:  Canada had passed immigration legislation only a few years before. Thaw’s lawyers in Canada were going to claim that the legislation, which was going to be used against Harry Thaw was unconstitutional. The Canadian government knew that the Thaw family were willing to spend as much money as it took, and they were afraid that Thaw would then tie up their courts in Canada with appeal after appeal, which is what he’d done in New York. They don’t want that to happen, so they throw him back into the United States and in those days the border was not guarded, you could drive back and forth without it being questioned, so he’s back in New Hampshire, and New York wants to extradite him from New Hampshire.

But you can’t just say to New Hampshire we want so and so; you can only extradite someone on the basis that there is an indictment against that person. So first they have to indict Harry on some charge, and the charge they come up with is escaping from the asylum, conspiracy to escape, and then New Hampshire extradites him back to New York.

TCR: And then in 1915 the Supreme Court of New York takes on Harry Thaw’s case?

Baatz: Yeah, because the authorities in New Hampshire said we can’t really decide this because this seems to be an extradition request on a whim. How can New York State claim that Thaw is conspiring when he was insane? An insane person can’t conspire, an insane person can’t be part of the conspiracy, so they get him back to New York, but they get him back on the basis of an indictment against him for conspiracy.

Well, New York State can’t just drop that indictment and pretend it never existed, and throw him into the asylum. They now have to put him on trial on the basis of the indictment, which was an indictment for conspiracy, so now he goes on trial. The judge allows the jury to hear the case, and the jury, because popular support is so strong, then declares that he is sane and not guilty of the conspiracy, and then he is released. He is a free person.

TCR: The book focuses on Evelyn Nesbit’s entanglements with the men at the center of the case, but her own life as an actress post-trials merits attention.

Baatz:  At the end of her life, she was quoted as saying “The lucky person was Stanford White,” and she gave the impression that old age was very lonely and sad, but I don’t really think that was true.  She got to move to California to be with her son who was supporting her; she had three grandchildren, she was in a pottery studio.

But her life immediately after the murder was a little bit up and down because she married again, she was in vaudeville, she becomes addicted to morphine and to cocaine, and she has her son; and then in the 1920s and 1930s she had to make a living singing in the cabarets in New York and Atlantic City, but then her son is her savior and he supports her.

TCR: Do you consider your book a sort of redemption of Evelyn Nesbit?

Baatz: She is a very young, 16 years old when all of this happens, very naive, what experience does she have? She’s never been to college, she’s had no high school education to speak of. She’s come to the big city, she’s caught in between these two men, one is 47, one is 31. I felt that nobody in previous accounts respected her as a person.

I think my editor was a little bit frustrated that there was too much Harry Thaw and not enough Evelyn Nesbit, but the problem with that is that once this murder case happened and the trials were over, there was very little information about her. But I think my book redeems her.

Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


The LAPD’s Charlie Beck: How to Reform a Police Department

After eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, retiring Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck gives TCR a frank assessment of the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned.

As he prepares to move on after eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck sits down with TCR’s West Coast bureau Chief Joe Domanick for a candid conversation about the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned along the way.

 (Note: This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.)

 The Crime Report: Let’s pretend you’re speaking to a group of reform-minded, big-city chiefs. What would you tell them is essential to understand about changing a department’s culture?

Charlie Beck: That you change culture by everything you do. Just saying that you want a more empathetic, more community-building police department focused on helping communities is only one percent of culture change.

What’s essential is how you interact with people and model your behavior. One of my core beliefs is that the way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community. If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out on the street]. They’ll see the way that you deal with conflict and adversity, and how you deal with people you don’t agree with, and act accordingly.

TCR: Once you were selected chief, did you actually sit down and write a reform plan?

Charlie Beck

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by Ruperto Miller via Flickr

Beck: Yes. A lot of times managers think: I don’t need that, I know where I’m going. But the organization needs a plan. It needs a road map. We wrote a list of things we wanted to do. Of course, they change all the time. You achieve goals or you modify goals, the circumstances change. You can’t write ‘em on a chalkboard and just leave them up there for eight years. You’ve got to look at them constantly; while doing self-evaluation to realize what you’re good at and what you’re not. And then you’ve got to find people to fill the gaps. That’s really important.

TCR: One of the biggest challenges a reform chief faces is getting buy-in from the rank-and-file and key opinion-makers within a department. How did you go about it?

Beck: I did it the obvious way ─ through the traditional chain-of-command-stuff [from the top down.] But I also believe in managing from the ground up. So I went to roll calls in every station. And in every division for my first three years as chief I worked a partial shift side-by-side with officers in their black and whites. And I did all things that are iconic culturally within the LAPD that demonstrate that we’re all cut from the same basic cloth. For example, I hate to run [in department races] but I do it because it’s part of the culture.

TCR: And what did demonstrating that we’re all in this together get you?

Beck: When you say things or take actions that [many officers] don’t intrinsically agree with, like, for example, undocumented folks should be able to obtain driver’s licenses, they’ll think, “I don’t really get why that’s important to (the chief), but I’ll just wait and see.” In other words, it’s not necessarily that they buy into your ideas. It’s that they buy in to you as having their best interests at heart.

TCR: What else can you say about troop buy-in?

Beck: First, understand that it’s going to be very difficult to change an organization. Then create a bond with a peer leader in one station, and that bond spreads through the whole station. (Finally,) you want to create bonds, but not be thought of as one of the boys, because you’re not, and you have to make that clear If you want to command respect.

TCR: The [LAPD] union resisted many of your [progressive] reforms. But you were able to maneuver between a very liberal police commission and a very conservative union to get body/patrol car cameras, and a new de-escalation shooting policy. Talk a little about that.

Beck: First of all, you’ve got to understand why they want what they want, and you’ve got to know what you want and what you’re willing to settle for. Then you have to understand what the real sticking points are for the union. Second, always gauge who has the most support with the rank-and-file. You or the union?

Who will they follow? Make sure beforehand you’ve got capital in the bank [of good will] among the troops; and that you are as good as you can be on that part.

TCR: What’s the biggest lesson you learned about officer discipline?

Beck: Organizations want to overreact to small things and underreact to big things. That is very bad management. As a chief I want to insure that if officers do serious things from which there is no return, that they have no opportunity to return. So officers have to accept that kind of bottom line and deal with it.

But you also have to recognize what’s important and what’s not. We sometimes spend an enormous amount of resources over very little. You can lose a lot of organizational authority by being seen as the kind of a chief who is more concerned about what color your socks are than whether or not you’re telling the truth in court. You know [the LAPD’s] been that kind of organization before. My lesson to anybody is: Don’t do that.

TCR: What’s the most effective way to deal with a civilian oversight entity, the police commission in your case?

Beck: Involve those individuals with the members of the police department enough so they will grow to understand that these are by and large extremely good-intentioned, good-hearted people. And if they are involved enough, they’ll see just how difficult this job is. And that maybe that expectation of perfect handling of every incident or perfect handling of any incident in my estimation is something that is a false expectation. I think that’s really important.

And I think that’s what you have to look at with police commissioners. They’re going to influence you, but you can also influence them.

TCR: Talk about the political skills and strategies that a chief needs in order to deal with the multitude of players. 

Beck: First, you’ve got to know the lay of the land and that every city is different, and that every political group is different. Then you have to know who are the lever-pullers. Who are the actual people that have influence? That is an art in and of itself.

No one person can truly know that. That’s why you’ve got to surround yourself with people who understand at a really deep level who’s influential in these individual communities. Recognize that there are some people that you’re never going to change. Then you’ve also got to recognize those who, no matter what you do, will think that you’re fantastic. That’s about 10 percent on your end. And then work on the middle.

TCR: And how do you work on the middle?

Beck: First of all, you have to explain your actions as best you can in public so people gain trust. You’ve got to show respect, spend the time necessary─or make sure you have emissaries doing so if you can’t spend the time. In every major community I have a chief’s liaison person who works within that community to have an impact, especially in the African American community.

Then you have to know which divisions are important on the macro level. I have 21 divisions. Three or four of them could be a flashpoint for a riot; that could cause a huge political upheaval with very small incidents. A couple of others in which people have a huge political influence. And then you’ve got to pick the right people to go to these places, [people] who understand the dynamics.

People in these areas have one or two issues that they find immensely important. So you’ve got to recognize what those issues are, whether it’s human trafficking in the San Fernando Valley, or immigrant rights in East LA, or African-American interactions with police. You’ve got to not only know that, but make sure you work to address that with them individually. It’s just about understanding the way they are. If you don’t, then you need to find people who do, and use those people to educate you and to do the outreach in those communities that they have contact with.

TCR: How about recruit training? What are the first things a reform chief should tackle with recruit training so that when those recruits leave they understand the game as the chief wants it to be played?

Beck: When they get out of the academy, recruits are uninformed beyond the initial nuts and bolts of policing. They still have to learn about political savvy, understanding of the goals of the department, etc. What we’ve done to address that is bring the recruit class back after they’ve been out in the field for a year. Then they’re ready to understand the bigger policing picture. Because now they’re not worried about whether they’re going to keep their job, not afraid of the great unknown, what are the radio codes for a purse snatch. They’re just not ready for this stuff when they leave for the academy.

TCR: You’ve managed to keep yourself and your department out of the daily news cycle that was a key feature of the way most of your predecessors operated. Do you think that was effective, and useful?

Beck: I certainly have seen police chiefs and city attorneys who love being in the papers. They crave it. They solicit it. They take every opportunity to put themselves out there. I have no interest in that. I understand that I’m going to be out there plenty anyway.

Being a police chief is a serious job. We’re dealing with life and death, with people’s safety. When you talk, you should be taken seriously. Less is more. If you go out there every time somebody saves a cat out of a tree, clamoring for attention, pretty soon you’re just a loud person clamoring for attention, and people see that. You come out to the public for things that are important, that you do believe in and which you have some depth of understanding and ability to discuss.

TCR: Why do you think it served you well?

Beck: It’s added authority during the times when we do have to use the media. Because we do have to use the media. When I call the press conference I get the press, I get a lot of it. Because it’s not common. I think it gives you a bigger megaphone for the times when you need it. Again, the more you put yourself out there you also create vulnerability. The more times you talk the more opportunities to trip up and all that kind of thing.

TCR: What should future reform chiefs avoid at all costs?

Beck: Thinking the organization is more important than you are. Thinking that it is about you, or that an organization can be sacrificed for your own personal needs. That’s my bottom line. You cannot be seen as somebody who will throw employees or the organization as a whole under the bus in order to save yourself. And I’ve seen people who did that just lose all the authority. You have to avoid that at all costs.

That doesn’t mean you never take action. I’ve arrested employees, all that. But that’s not the same as abandoning somebody for political expediency. You cannot do that.

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

That shouldn’t stop you from calling it as it is when something has happened and doesn’t fit the standards of the organization. But you can’t shape the standards of the organization to fit unrealistic expectations.

See also: The LAPD’s Charlie Beck: A Chief for a Transformed City

Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report, is the author of four books on American Policing and incarceration. His latest, now out in paperback, is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.” Joe welcomes comments from readers.


Life in a Rural Gang: Little Future, Less Hope

Big-city gangs may be more violent and newsworthy, but smaller and less violent versions are a worrying presence in many poor, rural communities. University of Arkansas sociologist Timothy Brown tells TCR what he learned while interviewing gang members in a Clarksdale, Ms., jail.

Violent big-city gangs have been the focus of research as well as media headlines over the past several years, but relatively little attention has been paid to gang activity in rural areas.

University of Arkansas sociologist Timothy Brown has been trying to fill in the blanks.

Brown, who first became interested in rural areas while writing his dissertation on the impact of the oil boom on a southern Louisiana community in the 1950s and 1960s, has spent the last three years interviewing pre-trial detainees—many of them self-declared members of a local branch of the Chicago-based Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples—inside the Coahoma County Jail in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The research, led by Missouri State University criminologist Julie Baldwin, is slated to be submitted to public health and criminal justice journals.

Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown

From his Little Rock, Ark., office, Brown talked recently with The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray about what he’s learned about gang involvement in the largely poor, Delta town of Clarksdale, which, according to the latest Census data, is home to 16, 272 people. The following is an abridged version of that conversation.

The Crime Report: What details of these alleged and admitted gang members’ personal stories struck you as especially illuminating?

Timothy Brown: There are two. One involves a young man who’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that he really liked. He walked into the school wearing them and members of the Vice Lords marked him because his shoe had a swoosh on it. This young man told me that, at that point, he wasn’t even thinking about being in gang. And his swoosh wasn’t even the color the Vice Lords fly. But, after they marked him, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He joined the gang. That’s one of the micro aspects that’s so important to the research.

A second thing is this: My fiancé is a Veterans Administration psychologist specializing in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The more I talked with her about that work and about my work interviewing these young people, I recognized that many of them probably suffer from PTSD. They’ve seen dead bodies. They’ve been shot at.

When I’m talking to them, they’re hyper-vigilant, looking around, checking their surroundings all the time.

Mainly, in terms of their overall attitude, they have a fatality about life. They wonder why they should even worry about the future.

TCR: How, specifically, did they express that fatalism?

Brown: The father of one of the young men had been in prison for most of that kid’s life. He told me that he’d only known his father for three-hour clips at a time, during visits to the prison. He, like others with a similar history, said nothing bad about his dad. But you’d see in their eyes this pain that they’d learned to neutralize. That’s what happens. I don’t think many of them really focus or really dig down into the history of where their struggle is rooted.

TCR: Interviewing can be very hard work, with no guarantees of getting answers. How did you navigate that?

Brown: I’m a white male and, in many ways, the symbol of their oppression. When I first started, I’m thinking, to myself, that they’re not going to talk to me. But they did. Not many of them declined my request to ask them questions.

Still, I’m well aware that they are in jail, looking for anything that might get them a few minutes of sunlight—because their cells were in the windowless basement of that jail. I simply said to them, “I want to hear your story.” I don’t think many of them had heard that before.

They’d start out by saying, “I’m not in a gang.” But, an hour later, they’d be giving me all these details of gang life and how they got caught up in it.

TCR: How’d you frame the interview questions?

Brown: I tried to let them lead the narrative … about gang entry and exit, the push-push-and-pull of this, the why’s of this. We also wanted to get family history, how they moved, how their family had moved. Some interviews were as short as half-an-hour, some as long as two-and-half hours. We found a lot of distrust in the police, and a huge number of kids who also were involved in a church community.

Other research has suggested that rural gangs are much more short-lived and unstable, often due to their smaller size. If three people in a five-member gang get arrested, the gang disbands. But we found the gangs in Clarksdale to be pretty stable, to have longevity. They haven’t gone away, even if, sometimes, they are somewhat nebulous. For example, if you grew up in a certain neighborhood in Clarksdale, you were assumed to be a member of the gang based in that neighborhood. Sometimes, those turned out to just be cliques, not real gangs at all. Sometimes the cliques became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, with kids who were assumed to be in gangs eventually joining gangs.

TCR: For what alleged crimes had they been arrested?

Brown: Homicide, aggravated assault, murder, capital murder, manslaughter, shooting inside a dwelling …One of the females I interviewed had found on Facebook that another young woman was messaging her boyfriend. The sheriff said that female was a sergeant-at-arms for a gang … She told me she’d graduated high school and was taking prep courses so that she could enroll at the community college. The sheriff’s people said, “Oh, she gave you her sob story.” There’s that kind of tension.

TCR: What drives gang membership and gang crime in a place like Clarksdale?

Brown: Contextually, it’s the same as what drives gangs in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit. Also, since the 1970s, there’s been a huge population decline in Clarksdale. Of those living there now, only 52 percent of employable people are in the workforce; 40 percent of the people live in poverty; 33 percent of households with children are headed by single women. It’s the same pressures, same stresses, same anxieties that you have in distressed urban areas. It just happens at a slower pace.

So, when it comes to the pushes-and-pulls of gang affiliation, I don’t think there are many differences. Number 1, there are huge fears of being victimized. They think they can get protection from a gang; but, as with urban gangs, their victimization skyrockets once they’re a gang member. Number 2, there’s a failure of the community to offer legitimate jobs, and (there is a) belief that selling drugs is an alternative. Quickly, they find that no one is really making money that way. These young people are living in a different setting, but they are not different human beings. They may be more casual about their gang affiliation. Rural gangs may not be as advanced in their violence. But they’re still kids coming up in communities with so many similarities to urban communities.

TCR: How did members of Chicago-based gangs wind up in Clarksdale?

Brown: We spent about 90 hours interviewing 30 inmates in that jail, some but not all were affiliated with the gangs. Some self-disclosed that they were gang members. Mostly, they were kids who’ve moved to Mississippi with parents or grandparents, though there were gangs in town prior to their families’ relocating. But everyone we interviewed had at least a remote connection to a gang. If they were not affiliated, they knew someone who was. Two of the three females we interviewed were in a relationship with someone who was affiliated.

TCR: By race and age, what was the profile of those 30 interviewees?

Brown: Of those 30, 89 percent were African American, five percent were white and the remainder were Hispanic, with one Hispanic female included in the group. Their median age was 26, which is a bit older for gang members. Some were still awaiting indictments, and some had been waiting for quite a long time; their cases had been assigned to prosecutors whose caseloads are spread across four or five different counties.

TCR: How much attention have researchers and the broad law enforcement community given to rural gangs?

Brown: Not nearly enough. The National Gang Center did its National Gang Survey [querying law enforcement officials from 1996-2012 about gangs], and rural gang activity is counted in that. Still, while there is a large amount of data on urban gangs, the focus on rural gangs has lagged.

TCR: Why?

Brown: Largely, it’s a question of resources. Law enforcement agencies in cities clearly have a larger gang problem, if you’re talking in terms of sheer numbers. That doesn’t mean those smaller numbers of people being affected by rural gangs should be lost in the fold.

TCR: For you, what, so far, is one of the big takeaways of this research?

Brown: Clarksdale’s long past of slavery, blues music, sharecropping, race issues is the backdrop for this work. Now that I’m coding our research, I’m seeing even more clearly that there is a dearth of research on rural gangs and their crimes. When it comes to criminology, we can be so oriented toward what’s quantitative. But the statistics we use don’t necessarily apply to rural areas. You can’t simply run a regression analysis because the numbers may not be there and may not mean anything for a rural setting.

The flyover states and regions where there are rural gangs are being washed out of this discussion, simply because they are flyover places—not because there is no interest and no concern.

Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


For Some Conservatives, the Death Penalty is Another Big-Government Failure

Heather Beaudoin, leader of a conservative group fighting to end capital punishment, found new support for her cause at this month’s annual CPAC gathering of Republican activists. In a conversation with TCR, she reports a growing willingness among conservatives to embrace justice reform.

Heather Beaudoin is a Michigan native who has spent the last decade working with conservative and evangelical communities to repeal state death penalty laws. She is now the National Director of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), a project of the Brooklyn-based organization Equal Justice USA, which grew out of her work with the Montana Abolition Coalition—a group that also included advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Association of Christians, and the Montana Catholic Conference.

Since 2013, the CCATDP has established a presence at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where it was joined this year by former Nebraska State Sen. Colby Coash, and Dale Brumfield of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. In a chat with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie as the 2018 CPAC drew to a close, Beaudoin revealed that one of the most persuasive anti-death penalty arguments for conservatives is that the government can’t be trusted to operate a fair and efficient system of capital punishment. She also discussed why—even in the aftermath of outrage over the Florida school shootings—she’s found reason to hope that anti-death penalty forces will secure victories in some GOP-led states.

The Crime Report: The death penalty is an issue that deeply concerns the left, but perhaps for different reasons. Did you find that liberals tend to be a liability in terms of partnership when you are trying to engage conservative communities?

Beaudoin: No, not at all. Equal Justice USA is our parent organization, which is nonpartisan and does a lot with the progressive community as well. When I started doing this work in Montana, I was working on the ground trying to pass the anti-death penalty bill there. And I noticed that we did have a lot of conservatives, current and former legislators, lobbyists and GOP state party officials who were against the death penalty— but they didn’t come to the [Montana Abolition Coalition] table for the same reasons as the ACLU. They felt a little bit like outsiders.

Heather Beaudoin

Heather Beaudoin. Photo from

The ACLU was talking about human rights and things like that, and of course really sympathizing with the person who was on death row and the death row family members– and that’s not the same reason that conservatives come to it. Conservatives wanted to talk about limited government, and cost, and their pro-life views.

Obviously, a lot of times the ACLU and the Republican Party do not work together well. So we felt like, let’s create a space where we can talk about the reasons we as conservatives care about this issue. Let’s find a way to work together, but sort of have our own voice.

TCR: Can you talk about the conversations you had with Montana law enforcement?

Beaudoin: [Conservatives and law enforcement] were groups that I had a little bit of experience with, and groups that were traditionally in favor of the death penalty. In terms of law enforcement…I would literally sit down with anyone who was willing to talk with me. I would travel all over the state of Montana and have coffee with chiefs of police, county sheriffs, and county attorneys and do a lot of listening, to hear—when I talk to legislators I often hear “well we have to have the death penalty because it’s a priority for law enforcement,” (or) “we have to have it because it keeps the public safe.”

So I would ask them, where does it fall on your list of priorities, especially given the drastic cost of the death penalty? Is it worth it to you, the amount of money that we’re spending when we’re seeing counties that are bankrupted by a single death penalty case?

And they would say, no—we would rather have more officers on the street, or we would rather have more training for our officers, or better equipment. It was really fascinating that even when they supported the death penalty, they really acknowledged it’s not an effective public safety tool, it’s not a deterrent. And many of them were willing to speak out. I spoke to a lot of folks who worked at the prison, and talked about the effect that carrying out a death penalty had on the [staff], which is something that I never considered. I learned so much, and then was able to bring some of those voices to the table at legislative hearings so that legislators could consider that not all law enforcement feel the same— certainly there are law enforcement folks who believe we should have the death penalty, but not all of them.

TCR: Do you continue to focus on law enforcement?

Beaudoin: Not as much. Most of my focus is on conservatives and evangelicals. We have a group called Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network… I just spoke at the National Association of Evangelicals’ Christian Student Leadership Conference, [and] we do a lot with the Christian Community Development Association. So we’re kind of all over the place— we’ve had events at Wheaton College, we’ve had an event at Calvin College. That’s my favorite part of the work.

TCR: I caught the tail end of a panel via livestream which concluded with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ comments on the importance of upholding the death penalty in the interest of public safety.

Beaudoin: Nebraska is a really interesting case, and Gov. Pete Ricketts in particular, because that was a state where they voted to repeal the death penalty, and there was a Republican-led effort by [former Senator] Colby Coash, who was with us at CPAC this time. The legislature there passed it with overwhelming Republican support. Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed it, and then [the legislature] had enough votes to override the veto.

Then, he and his father funded an effort to get the death penalty back on the ballot in Nebraska and send it to the general public, and they were able to do that. That’s how strongly he feels about the death penalty. And then of course it was reinstated. We lost, and now there is the death penalty on the books in Nebraska, although they don’t have a way to carry it out.

TCR: Let’s talk about Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are northern “outliers” when it comes to the death penalty.

Beaudoin: Ohio is of course a state that has a lot of upcoming executions, and we’re hopeful that Gov. John Kasich will be watching and listening and paying attention, and realizing that there are conservative and evangelical voices who do not support these executions being carried out.

I do work with the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network…. there are plenty of groups doing really good work on the ground in Ohio and have been for a long time. There’s a group called OTSE, Ohioans to Stop Executions. What we’re doing is trying to raise up conservative and evangelical voices. We’re going to be having an event [either at an evangelical college, or at Ohio State], just to try to show Gov. Kasich that this is not an issue that just liberals are speaking out against—but that people who think like him, and are of the same mind, are also standing up to say “We don’t agree with this.” To say it’s the right thing to do to call off these executions— they should not go forward.

 Pennsylvania [is] another place that carries a lot of baggage. I was at a couple of events at CPAC with folks from Pennsylvania who also understand and care about the cost of the death penalty—and certainly they should get it, because they’ve really poured so much money into their capital punishment system, and now are not executing anyone.

TCR: One of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates, Scott Wagner, has recently stated he wants the death penalty for school shooters.

Beaudoin: It’s always hard when we hear politicians who maybe haven’t taken a real deep dive [into] the way the system works, kind of painting themselves into a corner— because there’s so much to learn. Like we saw in Nebraska, legislators, when they were given the opportunity to learn more and find out the facts, voted against the death penalty. Of course the general public doesn’t have that luxury, to be an expert on every issue. And so we didn’t win there

The thing that I tell people at CPAC, the biggest thing we talk about is [that] it’s one thing to support the death penalty philosophically or in theory—or even feel like morally, it’s OK. That morally, if you take a life, your life should be taken. We have plenty of supporters who feel that way. But when they look at the way the system is carried out… they look at the cost, they look at the fact that innocent people are sentenced to death— basically, it’s not worth it, and it’s time to let it go.

TCR: Have you ever gotten close enough to Gov. Ricketts to understand why he’s so committed to executions?

Beaudoin: That’s a good question. I do know that he lost a loved one to murder, and so that’s something that a lot of us have thought about— is this something that is pretty personal to him because he’s experienced that loss? I don’t know, and I don’t want to speak for him, but that’s possible.

We’ve worked with victims’ family members on both sides of this issue, and the thing that I take away, and certainly when I’m standing at a table at CPAC one of the things I hear in favor of the death penalty is that we do it for victims’ family members— especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting, right? When you’re dealing with all these family members who have lost loved ones.

Something that I found that was really mind-blowing to me when I started this work is that the death penalty often harms victims’ family members. It gives them this false promise that the death penalty is going to be carried out. And most likely it’s not— the sentence will be overturned, or the person will die of natural causes in prison, because the process takes so long. And we want it to take a long time, because we don’t want innocent people to be executed.

TCR: Have you taken on any issues you feel are “adjacent” to executions, for example the conditions for prisoners on death row?

Beaudoin: We haven’t… something that we’ve certainly put out statements on is botched executions, which we just saw in Alabama. We again see that as a failure of government to carry out executions well, and so many of these execution protocols are shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know where they’re getting the drugs, sometimes the drug combinations they’re using are untested, we don’t know the credentials of the staff who are carrying out the execution process.

So that, to us as conservatives, is despicable— there’s not transparency in government at all.

TCR: Is there a prevailing reason that drives people to your table at CPAC?

Beaudoin: I would say it’s probably a tie. Number one is that we don’t trust the government to deliver our mail, why on earth would we trust them to handle a system that takes the lives of its own citizens? That’s what I hear most frequently at CPAC. “I believe in limited government, I don’t trust the government to get this right.”

And then I hear about the cost. I’m always happy to see that more and more people understand that the death penalty is more expensive, because when I started doing this work back in 2008, that was something that folks just flat out wouldn’t believe.

Now people realize that it’s true, it does cost so much more. Of course folks at CPAC, all of them are fiscal conservatives and so to them this is another big bloated government program that is very costly— and what’s the return that we receive?

I would say probably limited government is the number one that I hear, and cost is the next one. Innocence is probably a third.

TCR: Where are you focusing your efforts this year?

Beaudoin: There are three states right now that have death penalty repeal bills that feel very possible and that we’re hopeful about, and all three are led by Republican legislators. There’s Washington, New Hampshire, and Utah. So we’re sort of sitting on the edge of our seats and doing what we can to push those over the edge, and of course those are the work of the state groups that have been pushing it for years. We’ll know within the next month or two whether those will go or not go…but they’ve certainly made progress.

TCR: What was interest like at the conference compared to previous years?

Beaudoin: I really do feel like this year felt different in terms of criminal justice reform. I felt a lot more hopeful this year than I have in the past— not just in terms of the death penalty, but in terms of all of the criminal justice topics that were discussed. It just felt like there was real momentum and a different sort of hope. I went to two different panels that were on criminal justice, and Right on Crime had a reception. And those were well attended.

TCR: Which panels were you able to catch?

Beaudoin: There was one about overzealous prosecutors that I loved. Of course there are great prosecutors in our country, and then there are prosecutors to whom it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent: if they decide that they’re going to convict you, it’s going to happen. And that’s exactly why you can’t support the death penalty. It was encouraging for me to hear folks in the conservative realm talking about problems like that within our justice system.

And then there was a panel on women being in chains during labor, who are inmates. Because I’m so death-penalty focused, there were a lot of things they were talking about that I didn’t know. There were women from Kentucky, and I understand Kentucky is doing a lot around criminal justice reform generally. We’ve always felt that it is a state where we should be able to pass anti-death penalty legislation. We’ve had lots of interest from Republicans there, but have just never been able to quite push it over the edge.

TCR: Did you see your own efforts reflected in either of the panels you attended?

Beaudoin: The one about prosecutors, absolutely— it could have been an anti-death penalty panel because of everything they were saying. There were people there who had direct experience with being railroaded by the criminal justice system. And that’s something that I’m realizing, is that sometimes it takes folks having a personal run-in with the criminal justice system for them to finally wake up and realize—whoa, this is a little scary. I think until you know someone that’s been touched by the justice system or until you yourself have been, it’s easy to say— we have a great system. Which we do, but it’s not perfect.

And there are very flawed individuals who have a lot of power in the system. So, people were telling personal stories… and when people were coming up to the table, they were telling us stories too about terrible things that had happened to them.

And the one on women’s rights in prison too, certainly—talking about human dignity of people behind bars, and how we should treat them with respect because they’re created in the image of God, and because we believe in redemption.

I heard that over and over again at CPAC this time about criminal justice reform, that no one is beyond redemption. And that’s why I do this work, that’s why I feel personally passionate about it. I believe with my whole heart, that no one is beyond redemption. So certainly I saw a lot of our messaging, even when they weren’t talking about the death penalty.

TCR: Can you help me understand what the resistance is to repealing the death penalty, among conservatives who still support it?

Beaudoin: So, it always goes this way: that there are just some people who deserve to die. That’s almost always what I hear. And the Parkland shooting came up a lot this weekend at CPAC, because people are feeling it in their gut, that this is horrific—and it is. So I think that often, people feel like the only way we can respond to this, the only answer we have, is to take away that person’s life. That’s the only thing that will suffice.

And so we say, we understand that. If you ever listen to floor debates on bills like this, like in Nebraska, you’ll hear our opposition bring up horrible case after horrible case, and tell all of the gruesome details of how people were tortured and killed. We get that— we realize there are people in the world [who] commit really terrible crimes. But we cannot legislate based on that. We can have that gut-level reaction as humans, we can feel that this is wrong and this person deserves to be held accountable, absolutely. But we cannot only get folks who have committed really terrible crimes and are guilty, and not get folks like Randy Steidl, the death row exoneree from Illinois, and 160 others like him who’ve been convicted and sentenced to death wrongfully.

And so that’s what we try to say—take a step back, and let’s not have the conversation about what people deserve. Let’s have the conversation about “can we get it right, and do we get it right?” And if we’re able to get people to that place, where they can say “I’m willing to be rational for a minute”—that’s when we can say, let’s look at this logically, let’s look at the facts, let’s look at what is a good public policy around this—instead of what we feel people deserve after something horrible.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


America’s ‘Shadow’ Vigilantes

What do the Three Strikes law, mandatory-minimums for drug offenders, the Stop Snitching campaign, and private police have in common? According to Paul H. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, they are all expressions of a “shadow” vigilantism that has spread in the contemporary U.S.—usually in response to perceived failures in the justice system.

What do the Three Strikes law, mandatory-minimums for drug offenders, the Stop Snitching campaign, and private police have in common? According to Paul H. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, they are all expressions of a “shadow” vigilantism that has spread in the contemporary U.S.—usually in response to perceived failures in the justice system.

shadow vigilantesThe forthcoming Shadow Vigilantes: How Distrust in the Justice System Breeds a New Kind of Lawlessness, which Robinson co-authored with his wife Sarah, a former sergeant in the US Army and social worker, explores how the impulse to take the law into their own hands has been a feature of Americans’ behavior since the Revolution.

In a conversation with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, Robinson explains why the history of vigilantism is more nuanced than the traditional view which defines vigilantes as groups like the KKK and white supremacists, and why vigilantism will continue to operate when disenfranchised individuals in society feel that the system is ignoring their concerns.

The Crime Report: Your book suggests that acts of vigilantism are very much tied to early American history. Can you explain?

Paul Robinson: Vigilantism certainly has, and for many good reasons, a very bad reputation. People tend to associate it with some horrendous Klu Klux Klan lynching. But of course it’s also true that it has somewhat more admirable roots in other places as well. The original American Revolution was really an act of vigilantism where the colonists thought they were being treated badly. England had not kept its end of the social contract, so they took the law into their own hands in the very dramatic way of declaring independence.

Another example is the story of the gold miners in San Francisco. This was a city overwhelmed by an influx of people either headed towards the gold hills in California or providing services in San Francisco to people headed to the gold hills, and with the swell of population came a government that for the most part was corrupt. The San Francisco vigilance committee formed itself from a large group of citizens who in very public ways went after criminals and held public trials completely independent of the official authorities. When they really did bring order back to the city, and once the government actually matured enough so that it wasn’t just a bunch of corrupt scoundrels, the vigilance committee disbanded itself.

TCR: You also mention a line in the U.S. Constitution that refers to the recourse that the American people can take when the government breaches its promise to protect its citizens. 

Robinson: Given what the creation story was for the United States, it is no surprise to find some language in the Constitution that specifically seems to support and recognize the legitimacy of some forms of vigilantism. This is a larger theme of the book: to say there really is such a thing in some circumstances as moral vigilantism. There are a lot of stories about the gay community in San Francisco being openly beaten where police ignore the anti-gay crimes. The same occurred in the South with the civil rights workers: blacks who were being victimized because of their civil rights leadership.

We have some modern-day stories about women in India who organized a vigilante group acting against men who publicly assaulted and groped women, and the police did little or nothing about it, and quite a few other stories where it’s hard not to read the story, see the extent of the victimization, see the extent of the violation of social contract by inherently indifferent police and authorities, and not be sympathetic to these groups that then openly become vigilantes.

TCR: Although the history of vigilantism in this country is more nuanced than the Klu Klux Klan, the history of white supremacist groups terrorizing and killing African-Americans is very much a part of American history… and one that is still playing out today.

Robinson: Those groups can’t claim to be vigilantes: nobody is victimizing them. Their expression of violence is just a product of their own racial bias. In that sort of situation you might well have some claim to moral vigilantism on part of the black community if the police weren’t taking seriously enough their victimization. Luckily, we are doing a little better than we were back in the Civil Rights era and the South, where a lot of civil rights groups did have to form their own vigilante groups to protect themselves.

The criminal justice system does take seriously that kind of victimization and is making prosecutions and providing protection so that we can avoid the need for black victims to form their own vigilante groups. Obviously, it’s an imperfect process at the moment, but certainly authorities are doing a better now than they did before.

TCR: Victimhood is crucial to understanding vigilantism. How do these two terms interconnect, or rather, how does one affect the other? 

 Robinson: Well certainly the victims themselves can feel the sting and frustration of the failures of justice in ways that other people can’t, and they may have the greatest motivation to become vigilantes. Whether it’s classic vigilantes or shadow vigilantes.

Human beings are built in a way that they care deeply about doing justice and avoiding injustice, and when they see that in the world around them, they are going to want to hold somebody accountable. If the criminal justice system is doing the best it can, they are willing to cut it a break and say, you know, it’s certainly trying. It’s very difficult to accurately reconstruct past events. We can’t expect it to be perfect. But when they see a criminal justice system that seems to be willfully frustrating justice, we know exactly what happened, we have compelling evidence of what happened, and we are still going to let this person walk away with no punishment, although they are clearly a rapist, or a murderer. What does that say?

TCR: Indeed, a theme in the book is the recurring ineffectiveness of government authorities in carrying out justice, especially for African-American communities.

Robinson: Right, that’s a classic invitation to moral vigilantism when it’s clear that the system isn’t going to do anything about it, and in fact is going to be complicit in the victimization itself.

TCR: You open the book with a harrowing example of a domestic abuse case. Maybe the criminal justice system shouldn’t handle cases of domestic abuse?

Robinson: I am not entirely sure I agree with that. To the extent that there are other institutions outside the criminal justice system that can attempt to reduce crime, reduce domestic violence or sexual violence, that’s wonderful, absolutely, let’s do that, but at the end of the day there is a social contract, and the criminal justice system has to step-up and provide that sort of protection. I think domestic violence is an example of how for decades the criminal justice system miserably failed. I mean there are some classic cases. The Torrington Police [in Connecticut] watched a woman [Tracey Thurman] get beat by her husband in front of them and it’s the umpteenth time that he’s done this, and they just stand around and watch.

Well, are we surprised that she, and most of the people she’s talked to, are just horribly offended with the police and the criminal justice system? Are we surprised that they don’t have the slightest confidence in the fairness and justice and effectiveness of that system? Are surprised that they would be happy to distort the system as needed from their point of view if that’s what was necessary to get the system to take this domestic violence more seriously? No, I think that’s human nature. I think that shadow vigilantism is a natural response to any time the criminal justice system systematically, apparently willingly, fails to do justice.

TCR: Right. You provide examples in the book where private citizens did take matters into their own hands and government agencies tacitly condoned their actions. 

Robinson: Yes, I mean the first half of the book is really about this struggle to recognize the legitimacy of vigilantism in these special cases, and at the same time to recognize that it’s very easy for vigilantism to slip past the boundaries of moral justification.

Once you’ve passed that signpost of what’s lawful and what’s criminal, and once you’ve justified moving into doing what’s criminal because you believe that you were morally justified as a vigilante to act or protect yourself, it’s very hard to know exactly where to stop. It’s very easy for a group to say, well, that didn’t work. Let’s do a little more. In fact, one of the chapters in the book is about reactions of communities to apparent police indifference to the increased use of drugs as essentially destroying their community, and some groups will certainly push back when the police don’t respond and seem indifferent to the damage that is being done to the community. They may step a little over the vigilante line by confronting drug dealers or crack houses.

I think one of the larger lessons from that is just to illustrate how easy it is once you’ve crossed that line to justify doing just a little more, and therefore always worrying whether you’ve passed the point about what is morally justifiable.

TCR: Do you see a correlation between this sort of vigilantism, of taking justice in your own hands, and the U.S. relationship with guns?

Paul H. Robinson

Paul H. Robinson

Robinson: I don’t see that connection. There are a lot of groups who have no particular interest in the Second Amendment, but who can say with some legitimate claim that the government has breached its social contract with them, and whether they care about the Second Amendment or not they are put in a difficult, if not impossible situation.

There’s a separate issue in moral vigilantism that is worth mentioning: even if a group is morally justified under their own terms, it’s simply from a larger societal point of view, a bad way to solve the problem of that group that is being victimized.

So, for example, one of the stories in the book is about a neighborhood that has a serious crime problem. They get together and create a neighborhood watch group that is fairly aggressive and they are actually extremely successful at reducing crime in their neighborhood, which you might see as a huge success story. This neighborhood watch group qualifies as vigilantes because they go a little outside the law sometimes, they are stepping in and doing what they think the police should be doing, but when you step back and look at the larger situation what you find is that [while] it’s now a better world for them because their crime rate is down so much, what in fact has happened is a lot of that crime has simply been pushed off into neighboring communities that don’t have as an effective neighborhood watch.

One of the problems of individual group vigilante action is that it’s not done at a larger stage, or national, or even city level, so it has that potential of simply solving the problem for one group at the expense of neighboring groups, and while it’s hard to deny that this is moral vigilante action, from a larger societal point of view it’s not a good solution.

Better that the government do that, extend more resources if need be, undertake the policy that we are better at reducing crime and apply that policy to all communities in the area. So it’s not a matter of just pushing the crime next door, but rather preventing it. That’s just an example of how, even if on its own terms moral vigilantism seems morally justifiable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for society.

TCR: You write about the 1993 kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California, Was the response to Klaas’ murder an example of a moral panic, in which a horrifying act became politicized and had devastating repercussions for people who found themselves swept up in this new tough-o- crime initiative? 

Robinson: Let me go back and introduce this notion of the shadow vigilante. The moral vigilantes we’ve been talking about so far are classic vigilantes in the sense that they are themselves going out into the street and using force, and otherwise breaking laws, and sort of substituting for the police. They are doing what they think the police and the criminal justice system should be doing. But in some ways, that takes an unusual individual. Most of us just aren’t programmed to go out and become criminals ourselves.

However, the same frustrations that generate classic vigilantism also generate shadow vigilantism. They don’t go out into the streets, but what they do is less obvious, and in ways that don’t endanger them personally nearly as much. They nonetheless act in a way that undermines the criminal justice process: they try to subvert the process to push it to do what they think it should be doing. They manipulate the criminal justice process, and this I would argue happens a lot because it’s easy for people to do, there is nothing on the line.

Ordinary people have a role in the criminal justice process. Are they going to decide to report a crime that they see? Are they going to help investigators? Are they going to as jurors follow their jury instructions, or are they going to ignore the law and do what they want? Or in a grand jury, are they going to follow their legal instructions?

Or are they going to, for example, support policies like (California’s) Three Strikes law that seem like obvious overreach? A lot of its political support comes from people who are frustrated because they don’t see the current system as effectively dealing with the kind of offenses that now have mandatory minimums, and the kinds of offenders that fall under Three Strikes.

The problem with shadow vigilantes is that they are much more dangerous because they are much more common, and because there is not much you can do about them. And it all happens in the shadows, so you don’t even know it’s going on, and it’s not just ordinary citizens. Shadow vigilantism is something that is inspired by participants in the process as well, whether you are talking about police or prosecutors, or sometimes with the acquiescence of judges.

TCR: How does law enforcement contribute to shadow vigilantism? What are the implications on the criminal justice system as a whole?

Robinson: To give an example, police “testilying” is a phrase invented by New York police officers, invented because they wanted to distinguish regular lying under oath, which they considered entirely inappropriate, to lying with regard to, for example, what they considered the technicalities of the very obscure search and seizure rules.

This is just an example of a shadow vigilante who is frustrated by the systems, sort of an intentional failure of justice. This is how they respond. It’s not going out into the streets, and getting in fights, rather it is manipulating and distorting the system so that system will be more likely to impose the deserved justice that they think should be imposed.

TCR: Search and seizure rules are a point of contention between crime control and civil liberties advocates. What is your perpective?

Robinson: I would say, first, you can’t have a civilized, liberal democracy without having some form of Fourth Amendment that limits police intrusion in our personal lives. I mean that’s absolutely essential, and you need a way to enforce those rights. You can’t just have the Fourth Amendment on the books and then do nothing about it, so police are sort of free to intrude wherever they want, and though it’s a violation of the rules of the books, they can get away with it because there is no enforcement. There has to be some kind of enforcement mechanism. However, when we adopt the exclusionary rule as our enforcement mechanism [this] is a rule that on its face is designed to frustrate justice.

At the very least I would say this: every time we adopt a rule that we know is going to frustrate punishing people to the extent that they deserve it, no more, no less, every time we adopt a just as frustrating rule, we ought to understand that there is a hidden cost. That every time we do that the moral credibility of the system is undermined and people are going to be less likely to defer to it, to give it some kind of moral authority. Every time we approve these frustrating doctrines we are much more likely to inspire shadow vigilantes to feel morally justified in distorting the law to their own purposes.

I think it’s no coincidence that the Three Strikes doctrine, these mandatory minimums, are a problem that we currently have after a decade or more of the system’s reputation for letting people off on technicalities or tolerating really inconsistent sentencing where if you get the right judge you can walk away without no punishment at all. Once the system’s credibility for giving just punishment is undermined, well surprise, surprise, we know have these distortions in the other direction.

Part of the problem with shadow vigilantism is that it promotes a really damaging response. Once you have a system where everybody knows that there is this police “testilying,” everybody knows there are these mandatory sentences, and that these Three Strikes mechanisms are generating sentences that are well beyond what the community thinks is really just, once you have that kind of distorted system, are you surprised that there is then a backlash?

TCR: The Stop Snitching campaign arose from a mistrust of the police in some communities. Is that another example of the backlash you describe?

Robinson: The Stop Snitching campaign is a tragic development, because, of course, all it’s going to do is to reduce the effectiveness of crime control and make things worse, and increase victimization. It’s outrageous how the black victimization rates are dramatically higher. That’s a walking tragedy, but you can understand where Stop Snitching came from. You have a system that has a built-in police “testilying,” plus exaggerated punishment routinely under Three Strikes and mandatory minimums. Are we surprised then that there are some neighborhoods where the system is the enemy? No. The distortions that shadow vigilantism creates inspire its own backlash through Stop Snitching, and a lot of other ways that people think that they then have a reason to undermine the system further and it’s a downward spiral.

TCR: There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the failures of the criminal justice system being tied to offenders not receiving just punishment for crimes they committed, but the opposite argument can be made, that the U.S. criminal justice systems is one of the most punitive in the world. Can this in itself not be considered a failure of justice?

Robinson: Frankly, yes, I think that’s right. (Our system) tends to have exaggerated punishment at the high end, but in part I think that is a product of this shadow vigilantism distortion process that I talk about in the book. Having all those exaggerated penalties is a product in part of the frustration of the system not imposing punishment that was deserved. You know, we could have skipped that whole couple of decades where individual judges were free to just let murderers walk; well we could have saved ourselves a lot of the headaches that we have know with these crazy mandatory minimums.

TCR: What decades are you referring to?

Paul H. Robinson: Well, this is back in the 60s and 70s, before the advent of sentencing guidelines, there was an enormous amount of judicial discretion allowed. We thought it was quite justified. The problem of course was that a lot judges were quite idiosyncratic in both directions unfortunately, but the fact is that when ordinary people see that kind of disparity in sentencing, [they] are offended on both ends, and not just offended when somebody gets a lot more punishment than they deserve, they are also offended by people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve, and they are likely to react to what they see as the dysfunction in the process. One of the ways to react to people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve is to put in a set of mandatory minimums, which I think is tragic.

TCR: Do you think that the recourse to privatizing sectors of the criminal justice system leads to increased vigilantism? 

Robinson: There are many more private police than public police. We really have privatized policing in many areas. Certainly the motivation for hiring private police is that you don’t trust the public police, but there are unfortunate consequences that come from that, and one of the unfortunate consequences, of course, is that you can get effective policing only if you can financially afford it. If you can live in one of those communities that can afford private policing, well great, if you don’t, well then you’re screwed.

This is in part what contributes to the dramatic over-victimization of black communities. Most black neighborhoods are dependent on public policing. In a perfect world, we would have a public police department that was effective enough; in a criminal justice system with policing rules and exclusionary rules that cared enough about justice so that public police could be effective enough that everybody would find the services they offer to be acceptable. We’d have no further need for private policing and everybody was assured of that same minimum level of protection.

Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern with TCR. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Can a Jury Alone Decide Guilt?

Prosecutors have too often left it up to juries to sift through evidence of cases against individuals whom they decided were guilty of their crimes without a thorough investigation, says Brooklyn (NY) DA Eric Gonzalez. He adds his office is making sure that never happens again.

Is it easier to take a second look at suspect convictions when crime rates have declined, and the public is no longer clamoring for tough-on-crime strategies from their prosecutors and police?

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez argues that prosecutors in fact should beware of the opposite problem: when crime rates accelerate, critical evidence that might exonerate a defendant can be sidestepped by DAs who are too eager to satisfy the public’s demand for quick convictions.

Eric Gonzalez

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez

In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Victoria Mckenzie during last week’s John Jay/Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, Gonzalez conceded that prosecutors too often left it to jurors to decide on their own how to judge the credibility of both witnesses and evidence without pursuing thorough investigations.

The Crime Report: Since your Conviction Review Unit is handling cases that are decades old, are you able to see whether the decline of jury trials have had an effect on wrongful convictions either way?

Eric Gonzalez: Most of the cases that we’ve overturned have been jury trial cases. We have overturned a plea in one case, where a person was facing deportation, and we found…fabrication. But most of the cases have been jury trials. I’m going to say, and this is controversial in a way, but what I found is— especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when the homicide rate in Brooklyn (left) over 800 people killed, that the volume of cases weren’t very well investigated.

And often if there was probable cause, a lot of these cases would be put before juries with the kind of concept of “let the jury decide.” Make out a legally sufficient prosecution, but let the jury decide.

I think that today we look at these cases a little bit more critically. We don’t abdicate our responsibilities as prosecutors to make sure we have a certain moral certainty of the defendant’s guilt before giving it to the juror to say “you decide.”

That is something I am very critical of, and in some of these cases I think prosecutors could have stopped the prosecution of the case saying they had credibility questions about the witnesses. In the past maybe we allowed jurors to decide credibility, and sort of stepped back from making sure that we believed in their guilt.

TCR: So your review unit is not handling cases where the defendant pled out even if he/she may have been innocent, just to get out of jail etc.

EG: What we’re focusing in on right now are currently cases where the person is still incarcerated. And a lot of these plea cases, especially with low level crime, the person is pleading in order to get out of prison, and they’re moving on with their lives and they don’t have the resources or the organizations like the Innocence Project going back and bringing these petitions.

We have looked at pleas, we do look at pleas, but we’re really focusing our resources on the people currently incarcerated. So I think in a lot of plea cases you don’t have people still in jail.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Rape and the Justice System: When Police Fail to Listen

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters uncovered the trail of a serial rapist and two very different police investigations. TCR talks with one of the journalists who followed the story.

rape in americaIn 2008, 18-year-old “Marie” was raped in her apartment near Seattle, Washington. But within a few days of reporting the assault to police, Marie, whose full name remains unidentified, became the subject of the police investigation.

As Pulitzer Prize winning reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong recount in in their book A False Report: A True Story of Rape, she didn’t act according to police preconceptions of how rape victims should behave. And when they received a phone call casting even more doubts, they dropped the investigation.

Then Marie’s attacker went on to rape several more women in Colorado.

Armstrong and Miller argue the story is an example of how preconceived notions influence police investigations and raise questions about the fairness of the justice system. In a conversation with TCR staff writer Megan Hadley, Ken Armstrong explains how reporters working in two different cities came together on the investigation, what it taught them about the media’s influence on sexual assault cases, and whether the gender of  investigating officers makes a difference in such cases.

The Crime Report: How did you first become interested in the case of a possible serial rapist out in Colorado?

Ken Armstrong: I lived in Seattle, so I had seen coverage in the Seattle Times of the rapists’ arrest and it turned out he had also raped a woman in Washington [named Marie], who had reported the crime and not been believed. What was missing from the coverage was Marie’s personal account. She had not spoken to the media about what she had gone through. What I was hoping to get were details on how the police investigation in Washington went off the rails. I was hoping to be able to reconstruct how the investigators first began to doubt the woman’s account, and how those doubts spread.

TCR: Where did you and your co-author, T. Christian Miller, find each other in the story?

ken armstrong

Ken Armstrong

Armstrong: It was a really unusual set of circumstances. I was working for The Marshall Project when I began working on the story in 2015, and T was working for ProPublica. He was interested in reporting on the investigation in Colorado because he heard about the outstanding work that the detectives there had done. So he wanted to profile an investigation done well–done spectacularly well. I was looking at the other half of this story, in Washington, in terms of what went wrong. Both of us intended to fill out our reporting by figuring out what was happening in the other state.

T crossed state lines first. He placed a call to Marie’s attorney in Washington and found out there was another reporter working on the same story. So he told his editor, and they decided, instead of rushing the story into print in order to beat us, they would reach out and see if we wanted to work on it together. So that’s what we did. It was pretty serendipitous. I had half the story based on what happened in Washington and he had the other half based on what happened in Colorado, so we were able to walk those two paths together.

TCR: Early in the book, you mention that cops take different approaches to investigating a rape because there is no universal consensus for the best way to solve it. Should there be necessary steps that police officers must take when investigating rape claims?

Armstrong: I do think there can be best practices. There needs to be a consensus that the most important aspect of any investigation is the evidence. Evidence trumps assumptions. You can’t be swayed by pre-conceptions or assumptions about what someone should act like when they get hurt. That’s what happened here. A lot of people around Marie had pre-conceptions about how she should act because she had been raped. And when she didn’t meet those expectations, they began doubting her. And one of the people who doubted her called the police, and then the police began doubting her.

That didn’t happen in Colorado. Detectives (there) investigated each of the reports thoroughly and they let evidence guide them towards what was the proper conclusion. So to me, it’s the idea that you have to investigate thoroughly and completely, and you can’t be blinded by your assumptions about what every victim should be doing.

TCR: You note that most of the police force is male-dominated, with a macho, hierarchical and militaristic mindset. Is that why so many rape cases go unsolved?

Armstrong: I don’t know if you can attribute it to gender- it did happen to be the case here though. The cases that were solved in Colorado, two of the lead detectives there were women. And the case that was so mishandled in Washington, the lead detective was a man. But I think what is most important is competence, compassion, patience and understanding and those qualities are not limited to either gender.

There have been studies showing that female police officers can be more patient and understanding, particularly in the case of domestic violence, and it’s possible that you might see a carry-over to rape cases. But I think that it’s the qualities I just described rather than the gender of the detective or the officer.

TCR: You also mention the public’s influence on police investigations, quoting a retired police sergeant, who said “people outside of law enforcement didn’t want to talk about sexual assault.”  Is that changing, in light of  the recent cases involving Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and others?

Armstrong: That is changing. We’re seeing that with the #MeToo movement.  There is a real realization about how prevalent this problem is and how it needs to be dealt with directly and in a public fashion.  The examples you just mentioned with Weinstein and all kinds of cases that have been written about in the past year.

TCR: In the book, you include multiple chapters from the perspective of the rapist, detailing the “monster within” that he struggled with for many years. Did you want readers to sympathize with the serial rapist?

Armstrong: No we did not want readers to sympathize with him. We wanted to interview him for the same reason the FBI wanted to interview him after he was caught, to gain a better understanding of what drove him and to get a better understanding of how he avoided being caught for so long. The FBI agent spent four hours with him afterwards, trying to gain an understanding of what steps he had taken to avoid being caught, so that the police could benefit from that knowledge, and hopefully incorporate some of that knowledge towards how to investigate cases going forward.

TCR: Do you think, generally, someone convicted of a crime can go back and help police catch other perpetrators?

Armstrong: They can. This is why you often see police officers wanting to go and interview people after they have been caught. The more you understand about a criminal, the better your chances of catching other people going forward.

 TCR: You also include chapters from the perspective of Marie, the rape victim who police officers refused to believe. What are some of the issues that stem from pre-conceived notions about how a rape victim should act?

Armstrong: I think some people have an expectation that a rape victim would be crying, would be hysterical, and some are. But some aren’t. Some have almost no affect, their voice is flat, their appearance is flat. When you look at what happened with Marie, the people around her expected her to be hysterical and crying and they were taken back when she spoke with so little emotion. When she didn’t make eye contact, some people found that to be unusual. When she didn’t hug someone she would usually hug, people found that to be unusual. At one point she was giggling and people thought that was unusual.

People were constantly looking for behavior from her to align with what they expected, and when they didn’t see it they became suspicious, and that extended to both the people who were friends and family, and to police officers investigating the case.

TCR: What can police departments do to ensure that survivors are not re-victimized by the very institutions that are sworn to protect them?

Armstrong: One big element is to listen. Also, how you speak to someone who has been hurt and how you question them is important. The big problem in a number of cases we looked at is the police officers didn’t interview people as victims. Instead they interrogated them as suspects and treated them as though they were someone who committed a robbery. They used interrogation techniques that are grossly inappropriate in a setting like this.

Those interrogation techniques put an extraordinary amount of pressure on people, and when you see rape victims who were raped recant their story, you have to understand the interrogation techniques and how powerful they are.

TCR: You also note the layers of doubt that afflict every stage of a rape prosecution including the victim doubting themselves, police doubting, prosecutors and juries doubting. So, what needs to change in order for victims who are telling the truth to receive justice for the crimes committed against them?

Armstrong: I think it’s important to not start by doubting. When someone reports being raped, listen and investigate and let the evidence take you to the right conclusion.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

Minority victims of sexual assault by law enforcement have often been ignored by reformers seeking to improve police-community relations, says attorney Andrea Ritchie. In a conversation with TCR, Ritchie, who assembled a database of 300 such cases, including transgendered, lesbian and gay victims, argues the issue should also be part of the nationwide focus on combating  sexual harassment.

Calls for reforms aimed at improving relations between police and the communities where they work have tended to leave out an important constituency: minority women, including those who are transgendered or gay.

That’s the message Andrea J. Ritchie, an author, attorney, activist and scholar, repeats at each stop of a current tour promoting her book “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” published last year.

The proof, she says, is reflected in ongoing headlines about #MeToo—a movement mainly of white women alleging sexual harassment and assault by powerful men—and the comparative lack of attention to #SayHerName, a hashtag emerging from a report by Ritchie and Professor Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw of the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University School of Law. The African American Policy Forum published that report, entitled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” in 2015.

Invisible No MoreRitchie, a Barnard College researcher-in-residence and former Soros Foundation Social Justice Fellow, speaks from personal experience. She says that being a black lesbian who was once sexually assaulted by a police officer factors into her research and advocacy. She told Katti Gray, The Crime Report contributing editor, that her current efforts include trying to persuade the New York Police Department to ban its practice—a common one, nationwide—of having police investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment by police. She’s well aware, she adds, that Chicago Police Department union leaders blocked a similar attempt at establishing civilian review of alleged police rape last year. Here’s an abridged version of Ritchie’s conversation with Gray.

 The Crime Report: In her foreword to “Invisible No More,” scholar and former Black Panther Party activist Angela Davis called it a very difficult book to read. Was it hard for you to write?

 Andrea J. Ritchie: I was sifting through reports, watching videos, looking at photographs and speaking directly to some of these sexually assaulted women and girls, and their families, and the relatives of women killed by police. I was witnessing people’s pain and vulnerability and their sense of betrayal by a society that largely ignores these crimes.

There were so many stories that I worried about which to cut from the manuscript. If I cut them, the public would never know what happened. So I also created a database of these cases on the book’s website. It contains 300 cases right now; we’re about to update that to add about 100 more. And these are not all the stories that are out there. If a person had filed a lawsuit against police, that case was already being told publicly. There are cases I came across where I felt we had to protect someone’s identity, fearing they would face retaliation for speaking up. Sometimes, the assaulted women are necessarily kept anonymous.

Yes, writing this book was hard. At the same time, it was healing. Bringing these issues to light, hopefully, will lead to action that makes these things not happen again.

TCR: How far back in history are these cases you write about?

 Ritchie: Back to the1950s, when the Civil Rights Congress, through its We Charge Genocide report, chronicled a number of cases of police violence against black women and girls.

But, in actual reality, these crimes started in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on these shores and began committing violence against indigenous people and indigenous women … and in [the 1500s] when blacks were first brought here as slaves.

TCR: Of all the stories of police violence against women in “Invisible No More,” which did you find the most searing?

 Ritchie: The ones that strike me make it so clear that these controlling, mythical narratives about black women and indigenous women, which are rooted in slavery, still operate in policing today.

In one case, a 12-year-old black girl had stepped outside to flip a circuit breaker back on while her mom was cooking in the kitchen. The police—who’d been called to pick up three white girls for prostitution—decided to arrest that 12-year-old black girl for prostitution instead. When they went after her, she started screaming for her mom … Eventually, the police officers showed up at her school to charge her with resisting arrest. You do not see this child as a child? You see her through nothing except the lies told over and over again about black women being promiscuous, involved in the sex trade, inherently criminal.

Another that sticks in my heart is of a Native American trans woman I met in Los Angeles more than 10 years ago … Police detained her, assaulted her, then threw her out of the car afterward and said “Yes, you are Native … We can do anything to you that we want.”

Another story: When a black woman on her stoop in Chicago laughed because a police officer couldn’t catch someone he was chasing, he punched her in the stomach and said, “You, black bitch.” He deliberately assaulted her as a mother and assaulted her child … He sent her into premature (delivery) later.

I could tell you story after story that enraged me. I cannot think of just one that makes me cry or keeps me up at night. They all do.

 TCR: What do the data suggest about women who are assaulted by police?

 Ritchie: The data are limited. When these crimes are counted, it’s when people report them to the media or file civil complaints. In that way, it’s clear that those who are sexually assaulted, predominantly, are black and other women of color. And police deliberately target women least likely to report.

Of the available data, one national study, conducted by a former police officer [Bowling Green State University Professor Phil Stinson] of [548] officers arrested for misconduct showed that 73 percent of sexual assault victims whose age was known were less than 18 years old. [After that 2014 study, the U.S. Justice Department funded Stinson’s study, released in 2016, of more than 6,700 police arrested nationwide. It chronicled 1,475 arrests of 1,070 sworn officers on charges of sexual misconduct.]

Many of these victimized women are in the drug trade, sex trade, or are women who are homeless, transgender, domestic violence survivors, sexual assault survivors. Police have deliberately targeted lesbian, and sometimes say they are—by sexually assaulting them—trying to show lesbians another path.

 TCR: You suggest that even among black social and political activists there is too little focus on crimes against black women. What do you mean?

 Ritchie: I’d reframe the question a bit. Black women, among ourselves, do organize around and tell the stories of violence against black women. I do agree, though, that, in the mainstream narrative, in the media, those black women’s stories are not placed in the foreground.

Also, black women often will speak at a rally about violence against their child or their husband but not against black women. We’ve internalized this notion that state violence happens to black and brown men, and private violence happens to white women.

TCR: Black women see speaking up as problematic?

Ritchie: Yes. But telling our stories does not take away from the experiences of black and brown men … I believe more women would come forward if they thought there would be protests on their behalf and the same kind of outrage that’s expressed when a black or brown man is shot down by police.

Often, the condemning comments on articles I’ve written are from black men, saying “Here come black women, gay ones, trying to take the spotlight away from us and our oppression.” That hurts. I’ve been on the street protesting the killing of every single black man that I could. I have fought for policies that protect all of us. There is so much opportunity for solidarity. [Georgetown Law Professor and former federal prosecutor] Paul Butler’s book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” talks about how men also are sexually assaulted by police. This work isn’t about dividing, it’s about fighting for change together…

It’s about leaving no one behind and looking at all of our experiences to understand the extent of the problem and come up with a full solution, instead of half a solution.

 TCR: In your years of litigating, researching, writing, and protesting on this front, what has changed, and what hasn’t?

 Ritchie: Particularly in the last three or four years, the level of awareness has risen significantly. That’s because of the work of the Black Youth Project, the African American Policy Forum, the Ferguson uprising and others. The Sandra Bland case helped catapult this to the forefront.

 What hasn’t changed is how much those experiences still do not inform our analysis of the issues and the strategies we use to resist bad policing and advance police reform.

What I’m looking at now is the question of how women’s experiences change the conversation. How do you hold police accountable for assaulting women of color in the same way that you hold them accountable for use of excessive force? How does excessive force affect women differently? Most departments have no policy about limitations of force against pregnant women. It’s not about just saying another name at a rally. But it’s about shifting the focus and the demands we make, and the reforms we pursue, and really rethinking approaches to all of this.

TCR: What are some examples of the changes you espouse?

 Ritchie: It can range from very specific things like rethinking mandatory arrest policies, which grows out of concern that domestic violence isn’t taken seriously enough. Police don’t really change how they behave when they respond to calls for help. Black women often are treated as perpetrators rather than survivors of violence. Eliminate that mandatory arrest policy. That would involve a more holistic, community-based approach. It involves the community asking, “What is contributing to this violence? What makes it seem OK to abuse someone in a private relationship? How can we take responsibility for that, instead of calling the police? How can people in the community rally to stop that?”

There are examples of communities that have domestic violence response teams. If you speak to elders in some communities, you’ll hear them say there was a time when the family sat down and said, “This will not happen again” to the perpetrator.

 TCR: Where are there active examples of that?

 Ritchie: I don’t necessarily want to point these out as models, per se, but Spirit House in Durham, N.C. does just what I was talking about. Creative Interventions has a handbook about how to respond to domestic and other violence in your community. The Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn has created a program for LGBT people around police violence and community crimes. Those are just a few examples.

TCR:  You’ve pointed out some differences in the #MeToo and #SayHername movements.

 Ritchie: My recent op-ed for The Washington Post highlighted the reality that this heightened national conversation on sexual violence needs to shine the spotlight on sexual violence by police officers. To the extent that we are raising our hands and saying “me, too” we need to have a response regarding women of color who are assaulted by the very people we’re supposed to turn to protect us, but who are getting away with these crimes.

The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray covers criminal justice and health, mainly, for a variety of publications. She welcomes your comments.


Will Keeping Mass Killers Out of the Media Spotlight Save Lives?

How much do we really need to know about rampage killers? As little as possible, say Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex was murdered in the 2012 Aurora, Co. theater massacre. In a conversation with TCR, they report on the status of their “No Notoriety” campaign, which asks the media to focus on victims instead of perpetrators .

When authorities in Texas made a point of not mentioning the name of a man who killed 26 people during Sunday church services in November, saying they did not want to glorify him, their gesture was only the most recent expression of a sentiment that has found growing support in law enforcement and journalism.

The notion that rampage killers act, in part, out of a craving for attention—the so-called “contagion effect”—has long found support in psychiatric and scholarly thought. But the popular urge to curb the problem by changing how journalists cover mass shootings can trace its roots to a moment on CNN in 2012, three days after the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre, when Tom Teves, an anguished father of one of the shooting victims, lashed out at news-coverage priorities.

“Why are we talking about that person?” Teves asked after the shooter’s first court appearance ended up plastering the airwaves and social media with his bug-eyed, orange-haired visage. Why not ignore him, Teves challenged—and focus instead on victims like Teves’ son Alex, 24, who was killed after heroically jumping into the line of fire to shield his girlfriend?

Alex Teves

Alex Teves. Photo courtesy Caren and Tom Teves

In the more than five years since, Teves’ first reaction grew into the No Notoriety campaign that Teves and his wife Caren run from their home in Phoenix. It has been endorsed by major law enforcement groups and a number of media figures, including Teves’ original CNN interviewer, Anderson Cooper.

Others have mounted like-minded efforts, among them the FBI-endorsed Don’t Name Them campaign developed by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University; and guidelines crafted by Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Mother Jones magazine. But, thanks to the Teves’ flair for branding, and their stature as a murder victim’s survivors, theirs has gotten much of the attention.

Aurora victims

Photo courtesy No Notoriety

While No Notoriety’s approach is simple—urging journalists to curtail “gratuitous” uses of shooters’ names and likenesses—applying its standards has been anything but.

TCR contributor Mark Obbie spoke to Tom and Caren Teves recently about why they do this work, the evolution of their idea, and their frustration with a news industry that they see as obsessed with profit over all else. The conversation transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

The Crime Report: Your interview with Anderson Cooper, the very first appearance you made about this, gave me the impression that this idea came to you fairly spontaneously. Is that right?

Tom Teves: Yes and no. It’s something that I’ve thought of in the back of my mind, that glorifying killers was wrong. But, honestly, I didn’t even think to do it until I watched the lead-up to us being on camera, and it was still all about the killer. And I was like, “Anderson, can you go 12 seconds without talking about him, without saying his name?” In the days before that, the only information that we could get from the news media was about the killer.

Caren Teves: This was at the time when we had no idea what had happened to Alex. We were on vacation in Hawaii. We just got a phone call from his girlfriend saying that there was a shooting.

TT: So then we went on the news and went online and tried to find out what’s going on. We were using everything. We were calling and calling and calling. But there was no information.

CT: All we kept seeing was information focused on the shooter, nothing about the victims, nothing about where people can call if they had missing loved ones, or where to convene in Denver, or what phone numbers to call. Nothing. It was just all about this evil thing, what he did, his background, his parents, where he lived, what he looked like, his Facebook page, you know, where he went to school — everything surrounding this individual, and meanwhile we’re trying to find out if our son is still alive.

TT: Here’s somebody who snuck up behind a whole bunch of people with an automatic weapon where they were powerless, actually planned it out so they’d be as powerless as possible, and mowed them down with armor-piercing bullets. And we’re making this thing into a hero? It should be the scourge of our society.

CT: So fast-forward from Hawaii to us landing in Denver. We were just too distraught to speak to anyone. We had to hide in our hotel. But the media started trying to learn more about the victims, finally. And they were getting Alex’s picture wrong, and they couldn’t pronounce his name. So we said we have to come out of hiding to be able to get the correct information out there. That’s when Tom went and spoke to Anderson (Cooper). Unfortunately our son was killed and that gave us a national voice at that point. So Tom decided to use it. And that’s pretty much how it got started.

TCR: At the beginning, your idea sounded pretty absolute: Ignore the shooters entirely, not just who they are but why they acted. When I read your recommendations now, they sound more nuanced. How did your thinking change?

CT: We’re trying to be realistic.

TT: It was a spontaneous moment a day or two after my firstborn son was murdered. I wasn’t completely in my rational mind.

TCR: Understandably.

TT:I’m a businessman. I understand how business works. And I know you guys are all in business to make money. Nobody goes into business not to make money, including the non-profits. We have to set it up so that you can do your job. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, not with the sensationalist reporters who, you know, basically have no soul, but with people who want to actually run their craft and do a good job and really care about their place in society and how important journalism is to our republic. We wanted to set that up so that it could work.

We know you have to identify the person. What we’re saying is, if you have to say it, say the name once. We found articles that in six paragraphs—and this is true—the name was said 41 times. What we wanted to do was just get people to act responsibly. Don’t turn them into antiheroes. Certainly limit the use of their pictures. If you’re gonna show a picture, show ’em in shackles. Or better yet show ’em dead, ’cause that’s what these people are: 95 percent of them are suicidal people who want to go out in a blaze of glory. And you guys provide the glory. And that’s scary, because you can stop it.

CT: There was a lot more pushback in the beginning. But as we move forward and this is being more recognized, the pushback is not as much because the killers themselves are proving our point and the researchers’ point. They’re telling us themselves, through their manifestos and whatever they leave behind, “We are looking for this glory.” And they’re getting it. So they keep using it.

TCR: What about the argument by journalists that writing about the shooters helps prevent shootings because it makes everyone more aware of the warning signs?

TT: We never said, “Don’t say that.” We never said, “Don’t write every detail about them.” (Instead) we’ve said, “Do all the research that you want. But understand, as you’re doing the research, one of the material causes of the shootings is the (killers) want to be famous. Go and find out where (they) went to school, what happened with (their) mother, all the other stuff.” But you’re also going to find that almost every one of them, and every (mass shooter) in recent times, tracks back to other killers.

CT: In the Sandy Hook (school massacre), the killer had a chart. So, whenever we see “the worst mass shooting,” we cringe because that’s a benchmark. He had (a spreadsheet) of all previous mass shootings, how many people died. So they research other killers. And the research is readily available for that.

TT: The benchmark right now is like 60 and 500—60 people dead, 500 people shot. So the next person’s gonna have to do worse. Think about it.

Editor’s Note: In the Oct. 1 shootings in Las Vegas, 58 died, with 546 others injured; many but not all from gunshots.

CT: Yeah, it’s a terrifying thought.

TCR: Do you think your efforts have made this a topic of conversation during the coverage of recent mass shootings?

CT: This is not a new concept. This theory and this proven effect has been around forever. But unfortunately we were given a voice. Alex was horribly, brutally murdered by someone who just wanted to make a name for himself. At that point, that’s when people are knocking on your doors. So I think we did bring it to a topic of conversation. And if that moved the needle, then it moved the needle.

Tom and Caren Teves

TT: Believe me, I’d rather not have the collateral we have to get you to listen to us. I’d rather have my son back. But the reason Anderson Cooper listened to me is because my son was murdered. Now I said something that resonated. (Forensic psychiatrist) Park Dietz has been studying this. Nobody’s listening to him because, fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to live with what we have to live with, right?

CT: Where we’ve come the farthest with No Notoriety is to elevate the victims and the heroes. More media now show the names of the fallen and the heroes and they tell more of those stories.

TT: USA Today is one of the worst. They had a story about remembering the mass shooting victims of 2017. And it was a fairly long, well-written story. And I want to say in the front of my brain, thanks for starting to look at the victims. But the back of my brain says are you doing this just to give yourself some cover so the next time this happens you can sell a whole bunch of newspapers with the next jerk’s picture and splash them all over the place so that you have some cover, so you have some moral sort of high ground? You could make the argument that what the media wants is more victims so that you can continue to have compelling reasons to click, to tune in, to buy your newspapers.

TCR: Do you really think anybody thinks that way?

TT: You know, I don’t. But when I see really intelligent people whose job it is to look at facts and report facts and make decisions on facts completely ignore the magnitude of data and evidence that says this is causing this, this is a material reason they do it, the cynic in me says, “You’re just trying to make money.”

CT: The fact that it’s continuing speaks very loud. But what we found is the journalists that we speak to, they’re on board, I’d say 90 percent of them at this point. It’s farther up in the chain where it starts to deteriorate.

TCR: You mean management?

CT: Yes.

TT: Your publishers, your editors, the people who are responsible for the dollars and cents. It will change. And the reason I know it will change is when we go to the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists), and we usually have a panel at the SPJ, attendance at that panel gets larger and larger. It takes an hour at this point for me to leave that panel for all the young people coming up to me saying “You are so right. We couldn’t agree with you more. We want to change the industry.” So it’s gonna change.

CT: It will. I believe it.

TT: I think the other way to change it, if the media doesn’t do it on their own, is that we will have to figure out a way to pressure the advertisers to force the media to do it.

TCR: What about your well- being? The best way to promote your campaign is to monitor mass shootings closely and talk about your experience over and over. Aren’t you just keeping your own pain fresh?

CT: Yes. It’s like Groundhog Day. But it’s not about us. We’re trying to spare other people this pain. There are multiple ways to reduce this greatly, this being only just one of them. And when it keeps happening and happening and happening, every time it happens again I know what lies ahead for the survivors. I think to myself, “Wasn’t Alex enough? Wasn’t he just enough?” And it’s heartbreaking. And you know those 20 (Sandy Hook) parents, those 20 first-graders, they’re thinking “Wasn’t my kid enough to make change?” If the media had changed immediately following Columbine, I do believe my son would still be alive. I truly do.


TT: The sad thing about this is, if you do the right thing, it’s heroic in the truest sense, because no one will ever know whose life you saved. Because that kid won’t come out of the cellar with his AR-15 and shoot up a supermarket or a church because there will be no call to action. You won’t even know you saved somebody’s life. And you know something? To me, that’s the true hero. It’s the person who does the right thing for no reason other than it’s the right thing.

Mark Obbie, a former executive editor of The American Lawyer, writes on criminal justice issues for a variety of online and print publications, including The New York Times, The Trace, and TakePart. He can also be reached through his Twitter account. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Did ‘Repressed Memory’ Falsely Convict Jerry Sandusky?

Author Mark Pendergrast claims the former Penn State defensive football coach was a victim of “media frenzy” and a distorted use of repressed memory which led to his conviction for child sex abuse. In a conversation with TCR about his new book, he explains why he believes Sandusky should get a new trial.

In 2012, former Penn State defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is now serving a 30-60 year sentence in Pennsylvania’s SCI Greenesupermax” prison.

But in a recent book, journalist Mark Pendergrast claims that a closer look at the evidence presented at trial shows Sandusky is likely innocent.

sanduskyPendergrast argues, in The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, that the charges were largely the result of efforts by aggressive police investigators and recovered memory therapists who encouraged boys to “remember” molestations that may not have occurred. Pendergrast published his original arguments in The Crime Report in 2016.

In a conversation with TCR writer Megan Hadley, he discusses how his earlier work on the “repressed memory” phenomenon led him to investigate the Sandusky case, why he believes “greed” and media frenzy helped to distort the facts, and how the “rush to judgment” may similarly have ensnared others who have been wrongly accused of campus sex abuse.

The Crime Report: Where did your interest in the Jerry Sandusky scandal begin?

Mark Pendergrast: In 2013, I got an email from a woman who read my book about repressed memories, and she wanted to know if I paid any attention to the Jerry Sandusky case. She said that it involved repressed memory therapy. At the time I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed Sandusky was guilty, particularly because of Mike McQueary, a graduate student at Penn State who had seen him abusing a child in the shower. But when I looked into it, I found McQueary didn’t actually see anything; he only heard sounds. Then I got the trial transcripts and really dug into the case. Frankly, I became obsessed with it. I believe it is very likely Sandusky is innocent.

 TCR: In your book you explain how a media frenzy can cause the public to panic. Is that what happened in this case?

Pendergrast: There have been several moral panics throughout history where everyone assumes someone’s guilt and it becomes a mass rush to take action. That clearly did happen in the Sandusky case. The media jumped on the grand jury presentation, and it became a feeding frenzy. Within a week Joe Paterno, the longtime coach, had been fired, the president of the college was fired, two other administrators were accused of hiding the abuse, and basically Penn State became the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy.

 TCR: In your book, you cite repressed memory therapists, police officers, and alleged victims as reasons why Jerry Sandusky was falsely accused. So who is to blame?

Pendergrast: They are all to blame. It started with a 15-year-old, Aaron Fisher, who didn’t want to spend so much time with Sandusky anymore. The pattern that I basically uncovered was that Jerry Sandusky would try to be a mentor to troubled young men who were in the Second Mile program and many of them at 14 or 15 started to pull away from him. He was concerned they would get into drugs and bad habits, and from the young men’s point of view, it was like rebelling against a parent. Aaron told his mother one weekend that Sandusky made him feel weird and he asked his mother about websites for sex offenders. His mother then decided this would be a meal ticket, according to the neighbor who lived next door to them in a public housing project.

So Fisher was sent to (Clinton County psychiatrist Dr.) Mike Gillum, who was absolutely sure from the beginning that Sandusky was an evil molester. Although Gillum denies he practiced repressed memory therapy, that is clearly what he did. He believed that Aaron was too scared or didn’t remember the abuse, and he needed to be educated about how the brain works. Gillum was sure Sandusky fit the profile of a terrible pedophile. It seems fairly clear that without Mike Gillum going after Fischer, none of these abuse allegations would have happened. I blame Mike Gillum. But I also blame greed. I think from the very beginning Fisher and his mother thought there might be a lot of money in this.

 TCR: What are your opinions about the Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood sex abuse scandal? Do you believe Weinstein’s victims are lying and seeking attention/ money as you claim Sandusky’s victims were?

Pendergrast: I don’t think so. I read the New Yorker piece and it all struck me as being researched and accurate. I think the Weinstein story is true and I think it unleashed a flood of allegations, most of which seem substantial and reasonable.

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it would appear everyone knew he was doing this for years— unlike Sandusky, where nobody made any accusations. Weinstein is apparently quite guilty, and many of the other people are too. I think most women have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances at one time or another, almost every woman in America.

TCR: You state “allegations of sexual abuse on college campuses involving sports figures may be particularly susceptible to a rush to judgment.” What other parts of our society do you believe are highly susceptible to a rush to judgment’?

Pendergrast: Fraternities. Any allegations involving fraternities are assumed to be true because so many of them are true. In my book, I cited the University of Virginia case, where there was a false allegation reported in Rolling Stone and widely accepted. Or the Duke University lacrosse players.

The interesting thing about this is the way that the media has treated it. Because the case was debunked and thrown out and the players were exonerated, everyone rushed to write books about it. The difference between the Duke Lacrosse case and the Sandusky case was that Sandusky was found guilty and nobody wants to look at any alternative.

So far, the appeal process in Pennsylvania has upheld that judgment. Part of the problem in Pennsylvania is that nobody who is elected is going to want to be “soft on pedophiles,” certainly not the “evil” Jerry Sandusky. And the judges in Pennsylvania are all elected, so it is extremely unlikely that any Pennsylvania judge is going to grant a new trial to Sandusky. I am hopeful however, that when it reaches the federal level, he will get a new trial because his current lawyers did an excellent job at presenting the case.

So I have not lost all hope. But this innocent man is sitting in solitary confinement in prison, and it is remarkable that he has kept his sanity.

TCR: What role did the police play in the possibly wrongful conviction of Sandusky?

Pendergrast: There is something called confirmation bias that psychologists write about, and it means that you are looking for a presumption of guilt that you have already have. That is what the police did. They were not the least bit interested in children who said Sandusky was a great guy and he didn’t abuse them. [Officers] made it clear to these young boys they didn’t believe them and they said “if you remember something at 3 in the morning call us.” They would cross-contaminate by saying “many other people said [Sandusky] has done ‘this and this and this, how about you?’ ” [Officers] would make [the young boys] feel that they were failing, hiding, or lying if they didn’t say Sandusky had abused them.

People who believe Sandusky is guilty will say “young boys are ashamed of having been involved with a man in sexual abuse and will often hide it.” I think there is some truth to that. But it is extremely unlikely that none of these 35 young men who came forward told no one. Nobody suspected anything. So the police methodology was terrible and they trolled for victims. It wasn’t a matter of anyone spontaneously coming forward until, finally, after the grand jury presentment was out, people came forward, because it became obvious there was going to be a lot of money involved here.

You want to know who is to blame? Penn State is to blame. Penn State was terrified about looking bad, so they assumed guilt and fell all over themselves, giving away millions of dollars to basically anybody without any kind of due process.

 TCR: You quote from Mikhail Khorev, a Russian Baptist leader imprisoned for more than three decades in the former Soviet Union, who said, “It was interesting to see what lengths the state officials had gone to prove to themselves that I was a criminal.” Is this what happened in the case of Jerry Sandusky?

Pendergrast: Yes. But we also see that in many cases of DNA exoneration. People whose DNA proves they are innocent. But once the prosecutors and the police decided somebody was guilty, they would ignore any evidence of somebody else being guilty. So the real murderer or rapist went free while they were prosecuting the wrong person. And even when the DNA evidence exonerated [the innocent], the prosecutors and the police refused to admit they did anything wrong. It’s hard for somebody to admit they did anything wrong.

mark pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast

It is significant that there was no childhood pornography found on Sandusky’s computer or phone. The irony of all this, is that the prosecutors were sending racist, gross pornography to each other the whole time while investigating Sandusky, who is as pure as snow. He was considered to be something of a saint before the total vilification. But he was a very naive kind of guy. His children referred to it as a Mayberry world he lived in. All of Sandusky’s children (besides the one who went to repressed memory therapy) are sure he is innocent, but won’t say it in public because they are afraid for their own careers and families.

TCR: You say “False confessions are far more common, and easier to elicit, than most people realize.” How so?

Pendergrast: The police can lie to people. It’s possible for them to lie and say “oh your friend said you did it and we saw you.” Or maybe the police will tell the alleged victims they blacked out or repressed the memory. Many of those kids are sleep deprived and frantic, and they will say anything to get out of there. It happens.

TCR: Have you gotten any backlash for writing your book? Perhaps from victims, their families, or advocate groups?

Pendergrast: No, there has not been. However, the only book interview I could get was with one of the alleged victims. Nobody else would talk to me.

Editor’s Note: In a related book, Memory Warp, Pendergrast takes a critical look at the phenomenon of repressed memory. For more information on this and other publications by Pendergrast, he invites readers to check out his website.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.