Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘American Tragedy

The blood on the table

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Rob Morrow on American Crime Story

In American Tragedy, his exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Lawrence Schiller relates a story that would seem unbelievable even on a network crime procedural. Barry Scheck, the defense lawyer in charge of examining the DNA evidence, is trying to establish the possibility of contamination at the lab that tested the blood from the Bundy and Rockingham scenes. He ends up focusing on lab technician Collin Yamauchi, who handled many of the samples, and after painstakingly reconstructing the criminalist’s notes, he uncovers a bombshell:

Yamauchi had worked with O.J.’s reference sample [of blood] immediately before he handled the Rockingham glove. If Yamauchi got blood on himself, or if he got some on the table when he opened O.J.’s vial—a real possibility, considering the bloodstains on the vial—he could have transferred O.J.’s blood to the glove.

Then Scheck worked out from the lab notes the order in which Yamauchi handled the Bundy blood swatches. Scheck compared that order to the amount of Simpson’s DNA found on each sample.

Paydirt. For the first time Scheck and his team could see that the Bundy swatch with the largest quantity of O.J.’s DNA, swatch number 51, was the first one that Yamauchi touched after he handled the Rockingham glove. The swatch containing the second-highest quantity was the second one he touched. And so forth.

Scheck instantly recognizes the importance of this discovery. If the handling of the samples at the lab itself can be brought into question, the fact that DNA testing put Simpson’s blood at the scene can be thrown out the window: any test, no matter how accurate, is only as good as the evidence it analyzes. As Schiller puts it:

Common sense indicated that Yamauchi had to have gotten some of Simpson’s blood on his own glove, or on the table, or both. It was like stepping into a mud puddle, then continuing onto dry ground. Your first footprint leaves a lot of mud; the next one leaves a bit less; the third leaves still less. Scheck could see Yamauchi’s “footprint” on the glove and Bundy blood swatches.

The sequence was clear: Yamauchi gets O.J.’s reference blood on his gloved hands. Maybe on his worktable. Then he transfers O.J.’s blood to the Rockingham glove. Next he handles the Bundy swatches and contaminates them with O.J.’s blood.

And under questioning in court by Scheck, Yamauchi confirms that he got blood on his gloves while handling the tube with the reference sample, immediately before moving on to the Rockingham glove and the Bundy swatches. Yamauchi claims that he threw the contaminated gloves away, but it’s more than enough to raise legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the results that were obtained.

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown on American Crime Story

I’m telling this story in detail for several reasons. First, because I hadn’t heard it before reading Schiller’s book earlier this year, and I think it’s fascinating. Second, because it serves as a reminder that the Simpson defense raised damaging questions about the prosecution’s case that had nothing to do with race or the accuracy of DNA testing itself. Third, because we didn’t hear a word about it in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I should say right now that I loved the miniseries, which covers an enormous amount of ground in ten hours—but it can’t include everything. And the fact that Scheck’s breakthrough doesn’t even merit a mention, when it might have served as the centerpiece of another story, reminds us of how challenging this narrative really is. Despite the show’s texture and surprising subtlety, I have a feeling that most viewers will still come away with a sense that the defense’s case was based solely on allegations of police conspiracy and a pair of ill-fitting gloves, when in fact Scheck’s systematic dismantling of much of the physical evidence was so persuasive that I’m not entirely sure how I would have voted. (That said, I don’t think there’s any real doubt about Simpson’s guilt. Everyone will have a different opinion about which details can or can’t be explained away, but for me, it’s those Bruno Magli shoes, which we know the killer wore—it would have been all but impossible to fake—and which Simpson denied having owned, only to have dozens of photographs surface after the trial showing him wearing those very shoes, fewer than three hundred pairs of which were ever sold.)

Still, the miniseries represents a real achievement. It’s almost tempting to underestimate how good a job it really does, given what the writers had to work with: it offers roles of a lifetime to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, to Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and especially to Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and its climactic scene is the best proof imaginable of the writing rule, which I’ve discussed here before, that a jury delivering its verdict is always suspenseful, even if we know exactly what the outcome will be. And the result is so satisfying that it’s probably a trifle unfair to point out that the series doesn’t give the scientific side of the defense’s case the attention it deserves. (Doing it justice would have required a different approach altogether, closer to the obsessive procedurals that David Fincher does so well in films like Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while I’d love to see that version of this story, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get it.) Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done a spectacular job of clarifying and organizing a vast amount of information, much as they did with Ed Wood and Man on the Moon, which are still two of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. And they’re ruthless about cutting back repeatedly to the social and emotional core of the story, even if it means leaving a lot of great material on the table. It doesn’t provide a lot of room for Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck, who gets about a dozen lines of dialogue altogether, along with a tantalizing final caption that reminds us that he went on to found the Innocence Project. That’s a miniseries in itself. But it’s one we’ll just have to imagine.

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)

It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.

Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

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