This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the New Yorker centers on “the return of mass shootings” in America. For all the horrors of this pandemic year, many found some small relief in the momentary absence, with schools and businesses closed, of the “gun massacre.” Now, as the country begins to “open up,” mass shootings, too, have returned with a vengeance: seven in the past seven days, with eight people killed in three shootings in Atlanta, ten in a grocery store in Boulder, and four in an Orange County office building earlier this week. In the wake of all this too-familiar violence, pieces from Washington Monthly and the New York Times focus on the gun-control debate. Though the “outrage cycle” following mass shootings has become numbingly predictable, some things are different this time: for one, Democrats are in power, and have “never been more unified” behind new restrictions. For another, the NRA – long the “bête noir of the gun control movement” – is on the ropes, with a New York State lawsuit charging fraud and seeking the group’s dissolution. On the other hand, political stalemate, polarization, and our fleeting national attention span mean that passing a bipartisan background check bill, let alone more comprehensive action on gun violence, will be an uphill battle. And a piece from Slate, in collaboration with The Trace, also focuses on these recent shootings, challenging the media’s framing of the reappearance of mass violence in America as a “return to normal.” Mass shootings, the piece argues, never went away: they only slowed under a commonly-used but restrictive definition that excludes most mass-casualty incidents. In fact, when defined as incidents in which “four or more people were shot in a public or private space,” 2020 saw more mass shootings in America than any previous year. These shootings disproportionately occurred in majority-Black neighborhoods and affected primarily Black victims, but even the highest-casualty incidents received limited national media attention. Using such a narrow definition of “mass shooting,” the piece argues, enforces a “harmful hierarchy of gun violence that winds up ranking shootings with Black victims as least newsworthy.” As Greg Jackson, director of the nonprofit Community Justice Action Fund, told The Trace: “I think the media has written off our communities… The fear that a lot of Americans are struggling with and facing right now is the fear that people in our neighborhoods have been living with and navigating for decades.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Marshall Project asks, “Why is it so hard to prosecute white extremists?”. Especially in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, federal law enforcement officials have been criticized for not aggressively prosecuting cases against right-wing extremists. One explanation is simple: the First Amendment protects abhorrent racist speech, and in some cases, even threats. Another is a bit more complicated: Prosecutors typically choose to pursue only the strongest and most winnable charges, usually involving guns and drugs – even if it means downplaying white supremacy.
Other stories this week focus on the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A piece from USA Today centers on Chauvin’s defense team. For those watching from home, Chauvin’s trial might look like a match of a “lone defense attorney battling a stacked prosecution by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.” But despite appearances, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, is hardly working alone: the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association, the largest law enforcement union in the state, is backing him up with a dozen other lawyers and over $1 million in aid. A piece from Mother Jones also focuses on Chauvin’s defense strategy and “the myth of the supernegro.” In his opening statement Monday, Nelson portrayed the events of May 25, 2020, as “a struggle between a powerful brute and a law enforcement official trying to do his job.” He cited George Floyd’s height and weight, arguing, essentially, that “this Black man was so large, so powerful, and so dangerous that the only thing the tiny white cop could do to stop him was to kill him.” The piece explores the long-running “myth of the supernegro” – the idea that Black people are inherently “stronger, faster, and more dangerous” than other races – a dangerous and often fatal lie dating back to the days of slavery. And a piece from the Columbia Journalism Review centers on “the trial of Derek Chauvin and the debate about cameras in court.” Chauvin’s trial is the first ever to be broadcast live and in-full from a Minnesota Courtroom – a development that hasn’t come without controversy. The piece surveys the history of cameras in the courtroom, a national debate that dates back to at least the 1930s, when newsreel editors distributed dramatic witness testimony in the Lindbergh-baby case in violation of their agreement with the judge. While this debate has taken different forms around still and moving images, federal and state courts, and civil and criminal cases, its general points of contention stay the same: advocates argue that broadcasting court proceedings facilitates transparency and scrutiny of the legal system; while opponents say live TV coverage disadvantages defendants and can change the dynamics of a trial in “undesirable ways” – without actually addressing the justice system’s many flaws. Indeed, the piece argues, “the presence of cameras will not, in and of itself, fix the systemic biases of the justice system… but these problems are, ultimately, not the fault of TV cameras; it’s the job of the people on either side of the camera to do the fixing, including, in the case of the news media, by using transparency to sharpen scrutiny, rather than sell cheap hype.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the Intercept centers on the case of Rayford Burke. In 1993, Burke, a Black man, was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in Statesville, North Carolina, and sentenced to death. Although no physical evidence tied Burke to the crime, and though witnesses offered conflicting and sometimes contradictory testimony at his trial, it took less than two hours for jurors to agree that Burke deserved to die. Of the 137 people currently on North Carolina’s death row, 73 are Black men, and, like Burke, more than half were sent there between 1990 and 2000, a decade when the state’s criminal justice system was rife with racial bias. Now, as North Carolina attempts to reckon with its racist past, it remains to be seen whether efforts to make amends will be enough. And a piece from Medium recounts “the meteoric rise and dramatic fall” of Steve Carroll, the “high-flying corporate executive who wanted it all.” One morning in August 2018, a tall man in a polo shirt walked into the US Bank branch in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. After making small talk with the teller, the man pulled out a small pistol and informed her this was a robbery. She complied, handed over $2,000 in cash, and the man ran out the door. Soon, surveillance camera footage of the robber, who hadn’t worn a mask or even a baseball cap, appeared in local papers and online. As the photos circulated, friends and business associates were shocked to recognize the man as Steve Carroll, a high-powered, high-rolling corporate “dynamo” with a long resume as an executive at some of America’s biggest and best-known companies. For those who knew Steve as the “successful friend in any group he was a part of,” the “guy who always picked up the check,” the images were baffling. But the Rolling Meadows robbery was only the latest in a series of “unbelievable turns that started in the executive offices of some of America’s best-known corporations and would end in a manhunt and a burning question: What on earth happened to Steve Carroll?”.
In culture/true crime: A piece from the Guardian goes inside the world of amateur true-crime detectives. The article centers on Websleuth.com, an online forum where hundreds of thousands of members – true-crime fanatics from all over the world – “band together to investigate unsolved crimes.” Over the years, Websleuths members have picked over a multitude of cold cases – and recorded considerable success investigating murders, missing people, and unidentified-persons cases. These sleuths’ collective influence, however, “can also be their downfall: innocent people have had lives ruined after being wrongly targeted, while victims’ families remain in limbo as they are given false hope.” Slate reviews the new Peacock docuseries John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. One of the few things that many people know about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, beyond the “26 bodies discovered in the crawlspace of his Chicago ranch home in 1978,” is that he sometimes performed as a clown. After his capture, creepy, grainy photos of Gacy in clown makeup became “instantly iconic, the stuff of punk rock album covers and the urban legends kids use to freak each other out.” But Devil in Disguise avoids the “killer clown” trope, focusing instead on Gacy’s seeming “normalness,” from his successful small business to his connections in local politics, and the pervasive climate of “pretended virtue” in late-‘70s Middle America that allowed him to run free. And, in an interview with Teen Vogue, abolitionist and author Mariame Kaba discusses We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a new collection of her writings on abolition, gender, and racial and transformative justice.