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Jenny Pritchett: Postcard from the Court of Last Resort

How mass media declares murder—or not—in a small town.

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Image by Flickr user evsen yesert

by Jenny Pritchett

A couple of months ago in San Francisco, I sat in a nail salon picking through People magazine as the paint dried. The pages fell open to that week’s true crime story, with a picture of a family, all blond, sitting around a John Deere tractor. One could be fairly certain before reading that one of these people had died in a horrible way.

The man in the picture, Curtis Lovelace, may or may not have killed his wife, Cory, on Valentine’s Day in 2006 in Quincy, Illinois. That morning, Curtis has said, he took the three older kids to school—all of them later said they saw their mother alive before they left—and left the youngest, a four-year-old boy, at home. Cory, he said, had been feeling ill the night before and into that morning. When Curtis returned, the four-year-old told his father he hadn’t been able to wake his mother. That was when Curtis discovered Cory dead in their bed. An autopsy listed the cause of death as undetermined, which left the case open.

Seven years later, a new detective going through old case files noticed something curious in Cory’s autopsy report: “unexplained trauma to the mouth and a sign of death inconsistent with time frame given.” The deputy coroner had noted rigor mortis, which indicated to him that Cory likely died the night before. Still, the report went on, “there is marked steatosis of the liver, which is fatty liver, which can be associated with sudden demise, a characteristic diagnosis in the absence of any other findings.” Cory was known to be both alcoholic and bulimic. Still, the detective reopened the investigation, and, in August of 2014, Curtis Lovelace was arrested and charged with murder.

I was born in Quincy, Illinois, in 1976. Quincy sits on the banks of the Mississippi River two hours north of St. Louis, with a population that hovers between forty and fifty thousand. It’s a Tree City USA and in the summers is lush with ash, hickory, maple, catalpa, sycamore, alder, and oak. On a windless summer day, the air stands as still as the cornfields outside town. Also in the summers, Quincy frequently smells like cut grass, and cicadas hum in the trees. The historic district boasts turn-of-the-century Victorian mansions made of limestone bricks with peaked roofs and oxidized copper cupolas.

Quincy also boasts the biggest mall in the county, twenty-six parks, about sixty bars, about a hundred churches, and a few famous sons, including Paul Tibbets, who flew the Enola Gay when it dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and James Earl Ray, who spent part of his childhood there before murdering Martin Luther King, Jr. Quincy, right across the river from the slave state of Missouri, was a major stop on the Underground Railroad; a way station for Joseph Smith before he took his band of Mormons on upriver to Nauvoo; and the site of an 1858 debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for an Illinois senatorial seat (which Lincoln lost).

So Quincy has a rich history, and parts of it are beautiful. But Quincy also cultivates a marked sense of self-importance, which stems partly from its history and beauty; its being the largest town for hundreds of miles; and its massive and massively successful sports programs.

Curtis Lovelace and Cory Didriksen graduated from my high school in 1986, eight years before me. I didn’t know either of them. But Curtis was an all-star football player and scholar whose exploits the Quincy Herald-Whig followed. But it wasn’t only Curtis the newspaper followed; the Whig followed every sport, every season. Even I, as a high school junior, found my paltry cross-country race times in the newspaper. Curtis, however, went on to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship and, as a junior and senior, was named to the All Big Ten Team as the starting center—unusual even for a Quincy boy.

Although plenty of movies and TV shows have been made about the phenomenon of small-town sports—Friday Night Lights comes to mind—it’s hard to impress upon outsiders how pervasive this is. When I was in high school, Quincy residents of all ages held season tickets to high school basketball games. The pregame show, a tradition that stands today, involves a dramatically darkened gym, with that year’s bare-chested mascot, the Quincy Blue Devil, wearing blue tights, devil’s horns, and a cape, running around the floor with a lighted trident to bring each section, one by one, to its feet amid an ever-increasing roar of cheers before the lights go up, cheerleaders crisscross the floor doing backflips, and the team emerges by punching through a paper hoop. Attendance typically numbers in the thousands.

It’s a story that we, American consumers of true crime, know well and follow with pleasure, if not glee.

So, one of Quincy’s biggest all-time sports stars—an inductee into the Quincy Blue Devil Sports Hall of Fame—a murderer? As local reporter Bob Gough confirmed to 48 Hours’s Maureen Maher during a February 20, 2016, segment titled, “What Did the Children See?”, the Lovelace trial is “the trial of the century in Quincy.” Said Gough, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

It’s a story that we, American consumers of true crime, know well and follow with pleasure, if not glee. It has a familiar trajectory and stars a familiar cast, including the golden boy—a connotation given to men from Scott Peterson to Ted Bundy—turned murderer. We enjoy the twists and turns because we tell ourselves these people are “other.”

But we play our part, predictable in our self-righteousness and credulous about the media we watch and read. We play the judge and jury, a metaphor that becomes real life in the case of local audiences, and, even with a lack of physical evidence, we clamor for a verdict—or a verdict overturned—because it’s satisfying for human beings to have things in black and white. But in playing judge and jury, we are not “other.” We are inherently “of,” and our participation is far from innocuous. On the contrary, lives are at stake.

*                      *                     *

Sarah Koenig’s 2014 Serial podcast about a questionable murder conviction was unusual in the true crime genre because of its commitment to balance. Koenig remained open about her shifting thoughts about whether Adnan Syed was guilty of the 1999 murder of his classmate and former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, for which he was convicted in 2000.

Serial was incredibly popular, drawing in 40 million listeners over twelve episodes. But many expressed disappointment with how the podcast ended: Koenig declined to state an opinion on Syed’s guilt. As Laura Lippmann wrote in an article in The Guardian: “[I]t’s difficult not to feel cheated.”

During the podcast, Koenig sought the help of the Innocence Project Clinic of the University of Virginia School of Law. And, based in large part on their research and evidence Koenig herself uncovered—all of it made extremely public through the podcast—Syed was granted a hearing in February of 2016 to determine whether he will be given a new trial. As of this writing, the judge has not ruled.

A year after Serial came out, another hugely popular series about questionable convictions premiered on Netflix. Making a Murderer recounted how a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery was convicted of a female jogger’s brutal beating and then exonerated by DNA evidence eighteen years into a thirty-two-year sentence. That evidence also fingered the real culprit, Gregory Allen, whom, it turns out, local police had identified to the sheriff’s department within days of the beating. But the sheriff’s department declined to investigate, and Avery, once freed, also discovered that, ten years into his sentence, Allen had confessed. So Avery sued the county.

But during depositions for that lawsuit, Avery was arrested again, this time for murder—and soon after, his sixteen-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey confessed to helping him and was arrested, too. However, as the filmmakers made it seem, the sheriff’s department so bungled that investigation that not only may the nephew have been wrongly convicted, but Steven Avery may have been wrongly convicted twice.

Again, in large part because of the attention brought by a series, Steven Avery’s most recent conviction is under appeal; his new defense attorneys come from the Midwest Innocence Project. And, as of this writing, a judge in Dassey’s case—Dassey is now represented by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law—is considering an appeal.

Netflix hasn’t said how many of its viewers watched Making a Murderer, but Adweek reported that “in the thirty-five days after its release, each episode averaged 19.3 million viewers.”

Adweek also reported that the filmmakers defended their work “from accusations they intentionally overlooked damning evidence against Avery [including, as New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz stated, “multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence”] and did not include interviews with the prosecution.” One of the filmmakers said she “approached the story as a filmmaker, not a lawyer.”

What does it mean when a storytelling process that depends on bias accuses the criminal justice system of bias?

This may be problematic. As Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary programming, said, “As we were producing the episodes, it became very clear that they demand your attention—they’re very dense. It’s not something you put on and then cook your dinner and watch out of the side of your eye. You really need to engage. And as you watch it, it really inspires in one a desire to talk about it, to commune with other people about it, to bounce theories and ideas and just try to process.”

In other words, this kind of series is successful (by the network’s standards) only if it inspires such a sense of injustice that it leads people to encourage their friends to watch. Simply, it’s incendiary by design. So what does it mean when a storytelling process that depends on bias accuses the criminal justice system of bias?

The real problem, says Kathryn Schulz in her essay, “Dead Certainty: How “Making a Murderer” Goes Wrong,” is that “we still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort.”

*                      *                     *

Curtis Lovelace’s February 2016 trial ended in a mistrial. The jury couldn’t decide whether it believed the testimony of the three children who said they’d seen their mother alive on the morning of February 14, 2006, or the deputy coroner, who said Cory showed signs of rigor mortis, indicating to him Cory died the night before.

In the 48 Hours segment, correspondent Maureen Maher (who, with coworkers, won a 2015 Emmy for a separate story) sat down with three of Curtis’s friends—Steve Belko, the best man at his wedding; Beth Dobrzynski, Cory’s bridesmaid; and Bret Schrader.

They began by describing the Lovelaces’ wedding as “one of the best days in our lives” (Belko) and “a magical night” (Dobrzynski). In a separate interview, local reporter Bob Gough described Curtis—who became an assistant state’s attorney, president of the school board, a captain in the Illinois National Guard, and an adjunct professor at Quincy University—as “a pillar of this community.”

Then, perhaps predictably, came a voice-over—and the beginning of Curtis Lovelace’s trial-by-48 Hours: “But, friends say, with power, came ego.”

Schrader: “I just felt that he started to talk down to me the more and more I saw him.”

Maher: “Was he arrogant?”

Belko: “He became arrogant more and more. Yes. There was a little bit of a holier-than-thou. Maybe you were entitled to this living. I think he lost friends over time because of that.”

As for Cory’s death, said Belko: “I just couldn’t believe it. She’s my age. She’s healthy. This just doesn’t come from nowhere. Something’s wrong. [Here, the camera closed up.] There is no doubt there’s something [closer up] terribly wrong.”

Maher went on to interview James Keller, the deputy coroner at the time of Cory’s death. Keller said he’d felt suspicious about the position of Cory’s hands. Maher asked him to show her (and, one might assume, the viewing audience) how Cory’s hands were found. Keller held up his hands, palms out, his fingertips level with his shoulders.

Keller: “She was in the state of full rigor.”

Maher: “Full rigor.”

Keller: “That’s correct.”

Maher: “Almost like a mannequin.”

Keller: “That’s correct.”

Maher: “Fully stiff.”

Keller: “Fully stiff.”

Adam Gibson, the detective who dug up the Lovelace files, returned to the original pathologist, Dr. Jessica Bowman (Cory’s body was cremated after the autopsy), for an opinion. Bowman stood by her findings that nothing about the death was suspicious but recommended a second pathologist. That pathologist also found nothing suspicious. Still, Gibson looked for a third opinion, saying he “didn’t believe the information…was credible to what I already knew”—a telling statement from a detective, whose ostensible job—like a journalist’s—is to find the truth, not look for information to corroborate a preconceived idea. The detective found Dr. Jane Turner, an assistant medical examiner in St. Louis.

As she did with Keller, Maher asked Turner to show her how Cory’s hands were found. Turner held her hands up, palms in, her fingertips lower than her shoulders.

Maher (voice-over): “Based on those photos, the autopsy report, and police reports, Dr. Turner pinpointed [my emphasis] the cause of death: suffocation at the hands of another.”

Maher: “What did you determine would have caused the suffocation?”

Turner: “With the position of the hands, it suggests that there was an object between her hands and her body, and it appears that there’s a pillow missing. So I suppose that a pillow was used to suffocate her.”

Maher did not follow up on the discrepancy between Keller’s memory of Cory’s hands and Turner’s memory from photographs—or use that discrepancy to make the point that memory is faulty and, further, that eyewitness misidentification “is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing” (a major factor in Curtis’s mistrial was his eldest child’s testimony, that although she told police in 2006 that she saw her mother alive that morning, she no longer remembers). Maher did not question the connection between Curtis’s friends feeling slighted by him and their willingness to criticize him on national television. She didn’t follow up on Turner’s unsubstantiated claim that a pillow had been “missing.” And she suggested thoughts (to Keller: “Like a mannequin”; to Gough: “Is it the trial of the century in Quincy?”) she then left to her subjects to substantiate. This is not what is widely known as “journalism.” It’s what used to be known as “yellow journalism:” “journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration.”

The closest 48 Hours came to showing the possibility of Curtis’s innocence—as well as the imperfect and even arbitrary nature of the jury system—was in an interview with six of the jurors. Four said they’d either known or known of the Lovelace family before the trial. One admitted he’d changed his mind “in the course of deliberations” and went on to say that five jurors swore they’d never change their minds: two for guilty, three for not guilty. He said he’d felt “deflated” by the prospect of a hung jury, and other jurors expressed similar feelings about not coming to a “unanimous decision”—although none mentioned (or were shown to mention) having the same depth of feeling about getting the verdict right.

*                      *                     *

Kathryn Schulz wrote that Making a Murderer “seems less like investigative journalism than like highbrow vigilante justice.” She interviewed Penny Beerntsen, the victim of the beating, who misidentified Steven Avery. Said Beernsten: “[T]he day I learned I had identified the wrong person was much worse than the day I was assaulted.” She declined to help the filmmakers of Making a Murderer, telling Schulz, “My initial reaction was that I shouldn’t be upset with the documentarians, because they can’t help that the public reacted the way that it did. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, yeah, they do bear responsibility, because of the way they put together the footage.’”

It’s well-documented that popular media about true crime often influences convictions.

It’s well-documented that popular media about true crime often influences convictions. As Schulz pointed out, the protagonist of Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line was exonerated a year after that film came out. After being found guilty for his wife’s murder, the novelist Michael Peterson was granted a new trial after a TV series about him, The Staircase, premiered. And the three young men found guilty of murdering three second-grade boys in West Memphis in 1993 were freed shortly before a documentary about them, Paradise Lost, was completed.

As of now, nearly 527,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for Steven Avery’s exoneration. Public response to Adnan Syed’s conviction has been less heated and more split, and this is likely because Sarah Koenig did not sway her listeners about his guilt or innocence. As she told NPR in 2014, the unexpected popularity of the podcast “was just a constant reminder of how careful we needed to be.”

The media might need to be especially careful when it implies someone is guilty, given the connection between implication and public response. Perhaps the most well-known recent incidence of the media implicating someone may be the 2015 HBO series The Jinx, which seemed to catch billionaire Robert Durst confessing to the murders of three people, including his wife; one of his closest friends, Susan Berman; and a neighbor. That connection between media implication and public response is real: the New York Times reported that “Los Angeles prosecutors reopened their investigation into Ms. Berman’s execution-style murder only after Mr. Durst agreed to a series of interviews with the producers of The Jinx.” Durst was acquitted of murdering his neighbor, and he was never arrested in connection with the disappearance of his wife, but he’s currently awaiting trial for the murder of his friend. His arrest in March of 2015 was precipitated by The Jinx—but not necessarily in a good way. Investigators involved in the case told the New York Times “they feared that the renewed attention brought by The Jinx would lead [Durst] to try to flee the country.” This indicates they may have arrested him before having enough evidence to convict him—his apparent confession may or may not be admissible in court—so, strangely enough, it’s possible The Jinx might lead to a guilty man (if he’s guilty) being freed.

The attention brought by an independent media may be the necessary checks and balances to an inherently flawed and biased criminal justice system. It certainly appears as if many of these projects have contributed to the overturning of wrongful convictions—by all accounts a good thing. But what happens if, as Schulz wrote, “a private investigative project…comes to serve as our court of last resort”—and that investigative project gets it wrong?

As of May 7, 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,781 overturned guilty convictions since 1989. Many of these convictions were overturned with help from the Innocence Network or similar projects such as the Exoneration Project of the University of Chicago Law School. Recently, Curtis Lovelace—who is still in jail, held on a $5 million bond—replaced his lawyers with two lawyers and clinical teachers from the Exoneration Project. Its website says it “advocates in court for individuals who have been convicted of crimes of which they are innocent.” So although 48 Hours seems to think Curtis is guilty, his lawyers—who are working pro bono—do not.

But will their work be enough to convince a jury? In a place like Quincy, Illinois, it’s unlikely that many, if not all, of the second set of jurors will not have seen the 48 Hours segment, which streams for free on CBS’s website. Nielsen named “What Did the Children See?” as the number one program of February 20, 2016, with 5.16 million viewers between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four—more than 840,000 more than 48 Hours’s previous segment. By the time of the new trial, which is set for July 25 but is more likely to begin on October 24, 2016, it’s also likely that at least some of the jurors will have been influenced by the bias in that piece that is apparent, at least to this viewer.

It’s possible Curtis Lovelace killed his wife. It’s also possible he didn’t. But, regardless of what really happened, the town of Quincy, Illinois, may be ready to convict its golden boy. It’s certainly more entertaining that way.

Jenny Pritchett is the author of the story collection At or Near the Surface, which won the Michael Rubin Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Northwest Review, Southwest Review, Salt Hill, and other journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Previous essays have appeared on Guernica and Salon.com and in the San Francisco Weekly. She has received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Tomales Bay Writing by Writers. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, and she teaches creative writing at the Writing Salon in San Francisco and Berkeley. She may or may not be the writer behind Jenny True: An Excruciatingly Personal Food Blog.

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