This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: This Tuesday, May 25, marked the one-year anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd. In the year since Floyd’s death, the explosive waves of national protest that followed have reached beyond policing and criminal justice to touch nearly every aspect of American life. In a piece for Politico, a range of thinkers reflect on “the surprising ways that Floyd’s death reshaped the country – and what hasn’t changed, too”; while the Brennan Center for Justice surveys the past year in policing reform. A piece from the Los Angeles Times looks to the future of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the past year, BLM has achieved mainstream recognition in the US and beyond. Lawmakers invoke the phrase in the halls of Congress, and the slogan, painted in 35-foot-tall yellow capital letters, decorates Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC. But now, the movement faces the same challenge many grassroots efforts have: how to move beyond the recognition toward concrete solutions. And a piece from the New Republic asks, “Can the politics of police reform survive the crime rates of our pandemic year?” There are signs that crime is on the rise in some US communities, especially homicides in major cities. Some have explicitly blamed this uptick on the protests and reforms that followed George Floyd’s death last May, attempting to pin the blame on Democrats and “defund the police.” But crime statistics, especially those that purport to reflect national trends, are inherently flawed, and can paint an incomplete and often misleading picture. And, while “fly-by-night pundits” and “self-serving critics of reform” present the issue of rising crime as a “binary choice” between extremes – “you can live under America’s system of intense policing and intense punishment, or you can live under rising homicide rates and surging crimes” – all available evidence suggests the world doesn’t actually work that way.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: Last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a bill that permits the state to execute death row inmates via firing squad. Previously, South Carolina law provided that all death row inmates would be executed by lethal injection, unless they opted for the electric chair. The new law makes electrocution the default punishment, while allowing inmates to choose either lethal injection or the firing squad instead – although they can only select lethal injection “if it is available.” The law presents a brutal solution to a problem that’s faced the minority of states that still execute people for roughly the past decade: the increasing unavailability of the drugs used to do so. In light of South Carolina’s new law, a piece from Vox explains “why firing squads are making a comeback in 21st-century America,” while a piece from The Nation offers “a few words for the firing squad.” And, in a guest essay for the New York Times, incarcerated journalist John J. Lennon tackles vaccine hesitancy behind bars. Over the past year, Lennon writes, he has watched “waves of COVID-19” wash over the prisons he’s been in: first Sing Sing in Westchester, New York, then Sullivan Correctional Facility in the Catskills. In late March, a judge ruled that New York must offer COVID vaccines to all incarcerated people in the state’s prisons and jails. But even when they became eligible, Lennon writes, many were “not exactly eager” to get the vaccine: “Distrust for the American government is almost palpable within the country’s prison walls… Administrators seldom build trusting relationships with prisoners. Now, with COVID-19 raising the stakes, that us-against-them mentality is putting all of us in danger.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Texas Monthly revisits the 1981 “Comanche Crossing drownings.” The town of Mexia, on the outskirts of Waco, Texas, is a small, close-knit community of roughly 7,000. But every June, the population swells as thousands of Black Texans gather in Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, known locally as Comanche Crossing, to celebrate Emancipation Day. For generations, Mexia’s annual Juneteenth celebration was a proud, historic, and joyful occasion, “like a giant family reunion held on hallowed ground.” But Juneteenth in Mexia hasn’t been the same since 1981, when three Black teenagers drowned during the festivities while in law enforcement custody. Their deaths rocked the community and sent shockwaves across the country, with people from New York to California asking the same question as those in central Texas: “Why had three Black teens died while all three officers – two of them white, one Black – survived?” And a piece from Vanity Fair explores the case of the “missing Magritte.” One morning in September 2009, two armed men forced their way inside the tiny René Magritte Museum in Brussels and made off with Olympia, a 1948 portrait of the late artist’s wife valued at more than 2 million euros. Police arrived within minutes, but the painting was already gone. Then, in late 2011, two years after the robbery, a retired cop walked into a Brussels police station and handed over the missing canvas. A decade later, questions continue to swirl around one of the strangest, most daring, and highest-value art heists in recent history.
In culture/true crime: Mother Jones highlights incarcerated artist Elisabeth “EJ” Joyner. Since last summer, Joyner has been working with a team of activists on a project called Mourning Our Losses, to memorialize the thousands of incarcerated people who have died from COVID-19 nationwide. “A lot of people who have done a considerable amount of time end up being forgotten,” says Joyner, who was incarcerated less than a month after her 18th birthday and is serving a life sentence. Working only in pencil, Joyner uses mugshots to create portraits of each face, softening her subjects’ expressions and swapping out prison uniforms for the street clothes they might have worn. “Our goal is to honor them,” she says. “I refuse to allow these people to be remembered in their moments of misery.” A piece from the New Yorker explores the enduring appeal of Dateline, TV’s reigning “true-crime king.” Launched in 1992, NBC’s long-running “TV news magazine” remains, for an “exceptionally conventional” network series, almost startlingly popular. Dateline does many of the same things as newer, and more critically acclaimed, true-crime series: exposing injustices caused by coerced false confessions, following cold cases and investigating leads for years. But Dateline’s success, the piece argues, has just as much to do with its comfortingly old-fashioned style. After all, “in a year when so little has made sense, and so little has felt resolvable,” the “lure of a beginning, middle, and end” can hold powerful appeal. And a piece from New York Magazine asks, “Can a police procedural change?”. The summer of 2020 posed a problem for creators of TV cop shows: after decades of “coasting along” as a reliable, profitable source of “network-TV narrative grist,” there came a wave of calls for cop shows to be pulled from the air entirely – or, at the very least, to become “less racist, less militaristic, less rooted in police perspectives.” Nearly a year later, most cop shows have seemingly resisted, or outright ignored, these calls for change. But the latest, and final, season of NCIS: New Orleans offers a glimpse of what it looks like one tries – a case study in “how to reinvent a TV show without abandoning the basic foundations of the genre.”