This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Mother Jones reports that this week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing the DOJ to end its contracts with for-profit prison companies. The decision will affect a dozen private prisons across the country that currently incarcerate about 14,000 people, or roughly 9% of the federal prison population. A piece from Time asks, “What happens to the federal death penalty in a Biden administration?”. Biden is the first president in US history to openly campaign on abolishing the death penalty – and win. Now that he’s in the White House, pressure is already mounting from lawmakers and activists for him to make good on that promise. In another blow for the death penalty, the Washington Post reports that this week, state lawmakers in Virginia moved forward on a bill to abolish capital punishment – a “seismic shift” for a state that has executed more prisoners than any other in the country. If passed, the former capital of the Confederacy would become the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment. And a piece from the Los Angeles Times centers on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Written by the House Congressional Black Caucus under the leadership of Rep. Karen Bass, the bill aimed to address decades of racial inequality in policing, with provisions to prohibit “no-knock warrants,” ban chokeholds, and establish a federal registry to track police discipline and misconduct complaints. First introduced last June, the bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate, where partisan and presidential-election politics derailed any effort at reform. Now, with Democratic majorities in both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, the piece calls on Congress to revisit the Justice in Policing Act.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the New York Times outlines the history of modern white supremacy. Forty years ago, Louis Beam, a former Grand Dragon of the Texas KKK, had the idea of using his Commodore 64 – one of the earliest personal computers – to drive a broader movement by connecting disparate white supremacist cells. His contemporaries were skeptical; but today, the strategies that Beam set in motion, and his vision for white nationalism in the US, remain disturbingly prevalent. A piece from The Intercept focuses on the fallout from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection: an “unprecedented” push on anti-protest bills. In the past three weeks, at least nine states have introduced 14 such bills, which serve to criminalize participation in “disruptive” protests. The measures range from “barring demonstrators from public benefits or government jobs” to “offering legal protections to those who shoot or run over protesters.” Though these proposals have been framed as a response to the violence at the Capitol, they are part of a larger pattern: anti-protest bills have proliferated across the country since Donald Trump became president in 2017, picking up speed after this summer’s uprisings in response to the police killing of George Floyd. And a piece from the New Republic asks, “How do you deradicalize a cop?”. Last week, the Washington Post reported that more than a dozen off-duty law enforcement officers took part in the Capitol riot; and at least a dozen Capitol Police officers are under investigation for assisting or encouraging the mob. As law enforcement agencies search their ranks for extremists, “deeper questions have emerged about the racist, conspiratorial thinking embedded in those institutions.” “How do you begin to dismantle the paranoia,” writes Melissa Gira Grant, “the conspiracy theories, the willingness to do violence off the clock — when it is their job? Dismantling all that involves reaching further back than the Trump years. It could take dismantling those agencies entirely.”
In complex crime storytelling: In an excerpt from his new book, Let the Lord Sort Them, The Marshall Project staff writer Maurice Chammah revisits “the case that made Texas [America’s] death penalty capital.” In 1973, Jerry Jurek, a west-Texas cotton mill worker, was convicted of killing a 10-year-old girl. Prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty. But what might have amounted to a straightforward small-town murder case was complicated by the fact that one year earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down every death penalty law in the country. State legislators across the US raced to write new laws, and by May 1973, Texas had one on the books. As one of the first death sentences under this new law, Jurek’s would become a test case, playing a key role in both the nationwide rise of the death penalty and Texas’s place at the center. And a piece from The Atlantic focuses on “the victims left behind by genetic genealogy.” In recent years, police around the country have embraced genetic genealogy – which uses online consumer DNA databases to identify suspects through family connections – as a powerful new tool for criminal investigation. But so far, this new technique has been applied primarily to cases with white victims, reflecting biases both within the criminal justice system and in society at large: “Black communities are often over-policed, a deep-set problem that 2020’s protests against police killings put in stark relief. But they are also under-policed, and it is this second problem that has distorted the use of genetic genealogy.”
In culture/true crime: Slate reviews The Investigation, HBO’s forthcoming miniseries about the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. At the time, the so-called “submarine case” – Wall was murdered by her interview subject, the Danish entrepreneur Peter Madsen, aboard his homemade submarine – drew international headlines, but most media coverage focused narrowly on Madsen and the gory details of Kim’s death. Throughout The Investigation, Madsen is purposefully never mentioned by name, and though violent acts are often discussed, they’re never shown on screen. By avoiding the sensationalism and exploitation that can make true-crime difficult to watch, The Investigation returns Kim Wall to the center of her story, treating both crime and victim with compassion, sensitivity, and care. New York Magazine reviews We Know the Truth, the first post-prison album by LA rapper Drakeo the Ruler. Drakeo was released this November after serving nearly three years on a convoluted gang conspiracy charge; his case became “one of the more high-profile examples of how the justice system sees Black rappers with targets on their backs.” Written from his cell, We Know the Truth aims its critique at the criminal justice system, “[emphasizing] clear calls for justice with some of his most intimidating bars ever.” And, in a piece for the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates reviews We Keep the Dead Close, journalist Becky Cooper’s true-crime account of an unsolved 1969 murder at Harvard. We Keep the Dead Close blurs the boundaries of its genre, mixing elements of the procedural with memoir and speculative fiction. The revelation of the murderer is not the conclusion or even the most important feature of the book; instead, Oates writes, “the journey to non-revelation — ‘the absence of mystery, of narrative echo, of symmetry or rhyme or sense’ — becomes the memoirist’s subject.”