Dear Diane Fanning,
Recently a close family friend of the wrongfully convicted Raynella Dossett-Leath contacted me to discuss your forthcoming book. I thought about writing to you privately, but what I have to say is something I’ve wanted to write publicly for a very long time. It concerns many more family tragedies than just the one about which you have written.
In part I want to argue that the whole “true crime” genre should be reconsidered or perhaps completely abandoned.
- Sidebar: I have solid credentials as a critic of literary genres: a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.
Most “true crime” books are exploitative rather than informative. They exploit readers’ brutal curiosity. They exploit victims. They violate the privacy of victims’ families and innocent families of defendants. They perpetrate false rumors and help elevate these rumors to the level of evidence.
The genre deceptively attempts to distinguish itself from crime and mystery fiction with the label “true,” when “nonfiction” would be closer to the truth. Besides, if writers were honest we would admit that the only truth in any form of nonfiction not also found in fiction is the historical facts on which it relies. Everything else in nonfiction is mere opinion tinged by the writer’s imagination—exactly like fiction. All writing is subjective. Nonfiction is never objective.
- I’ve heard of computer programs that generate news stories from fact about sports events, and I assume such stories are completely objective. But reading computer-generated prose sounds about as interesting as watching a computer play chess.
I also want to say publicly I’ve had enough of the media’s use of human tragedy for commercial entertainment purposes.
- Sidebar: I write this blog without advertising. My opinions about jury duty and the justice system are entirely independent.
Journalism has degenerated into nothing but political propaganda (of all stripes) and salacious exploitation of personal tragedies.
There’s no justification for exploiting victims of crime. Consider the way the media covers victims of sexual abuse, as they did in the Michael Jackson trial. There’s no justification for the way the media exploited murdered Jonbenet Ramsey, even going so far as to disparage her love of participating in beauty pageants.
Sidebar: Raynella’s daughters are victims, too. Their father died violently and tragically. Yet the prosecution cares nothing for their feelings, for their belief in their mother’s innocence. The only child of one of Raynella’s alleged victims whom the prosecution seems to care about is David Leath’s daughter. I wonder why that is?
There’s no justification for journalists and lawyers making careers of exploiting sensational murders, or what’s worse, non-sensational murders, such as cases of domestic violence: think Scott Peterson and Drew Peterson.
There’s no reason that every American should know the name of Casey Anthony or of any other parent accused of being responsible for the deaths of their children. There’s no reason for TruTV to broadcast edited footage of the trials of such parents.
And there’s certainly no reason a nurse in Tennessee and her family should be dragged through the mud. Even if the woman were responsible for the deaths of two husbands, it isn’t news-worthy. I’m sorry to say I suspect it happens all the time. It’s worthy only of being prosecuted properly and with respect for the U.S. Constitution.
- Sidebar: It’s time to stop blaming jurors for verdicts, too. Here in the Chicago area, the Blagejovich jury agreed 12-0 on one guilty verdict, split 7-5 on 22 counts, and split 11-1 on 1 count. Yet the lone holdout on the final count is being called “corrupt” in the media. Please stop this. How about blaming the system for its inability to properly charge and try a former governor caught on tape extorting campaign funds from Children’s Hospital?
“True Crime”—Where the Truth Lies
True crime nonfiction can be well-written and meaningful. Such essays can reflect upon human behavior, justice—”life, death, and the meaning of everything,” to paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The core of murder is life and death, after all.
The quintessential true crime book is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). Capote was a great writer. He researched the 1959 crime thoroughly over a period of years. He met with the convicted killers in prison. His true crime book is about the inner workings of a spree-killer’s mind, not about gruesome, sensational details of a crime or the messy lives of victims (as so many recent true crime books are). Capote’s prose in In Cold Blood is flawless. Since then no one has come close to matching the quality of In Cold Blood, except perhaps Joseph Wambaugh in The Onion Field. (1973).
Anne Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1980) dragged the genre in a new and, in my opinion, corrupt direction, namely exploitation of notorious murders for personal aggrandizement. Rule’s career was founded on this book about her very tangential acquaintance with serial killer Ted Bundy. (If you can call it luck, she was lucky she sat next to a killer when she manned a suicide prevention hotline, or her name might still be as unknown as mine.)
The floodgates opened after that publication. Now we’re stuck with a cadre of authors like “Judge” Catherine Crier and “Detective” Mark Furhman, both of whom focus on trying to prove that various infamous convicts “really did” commit the crimes of which they were accused despite their claims of innocence. (You know, it’s really fairly rare for convicts to maintain their innocence. You’d think writers might be more interested in figuring out where the truth lies in such cases. )
At its best, true crime dissects a long-solved murder in which there can be no doubt as to the guilt of the murderer. Yet most true crime these days is cranked out within weeks of a murder, let alone an arrest. Consider how many books were published about the Jonbenet Ramsey murder. No one then knew whodunit. We don’t even know whodunit now. Most of the books accused the victim’s parents. Some even accused her young brother: fortunately this country still has libel and slander laws, and the Ramseys pursued the perpetrators of this cruel accusation in court.
A true-crime author must be someone completely uninvolved in the crime, its detection, and its punishment: this is what disqualifies most judges, lawyers, detectives, and especially prosecutors, such as Vincent Bugolosi (Helter Skelter), from writing true crime.
In order to write objectively about a crime, an author with a background in law enforcement and the justice system ought by rights to be on the side of exoneration: Scott Turow’s work is the best example of such books. When an author seeks to exonerate the accused, he necessarily exposes the failings of the justice system that convicted him—not the natural frailties of all the people involved in the tragedy. He respects the victims. He respects the anger of victims’ families. But he does not compromise in his search for the truth.
ne Crier’s A Deadly Game (about the Scott Peterson case, 2005) is one of the worst of the true crime genre. In it the former prosecutor and judge repeats endless gossip from friends and neighbors as if it were damning proof of guilt. She infers devious motives from ludicrous, trivial details of the Peterson home (which I refuse to call the “crime scene,” because it was never proven to be the scene of a crime). For example, a rumpled throw rug in the kitchen morphs in Crier’s book into proof of a violent struggle or of a body being dragged across a threshold.
Worst of all, though, Crier drags the Peterson family through the mud—people who were clearly guilty of nothing but believing their child was innocent. Conversely, she assumes that everything the in-laws said was true, even though they were clearly, though understandably, biased, if not vindictive.
Raynella Dossett-Leath’s Story
I have written about Ms. Dossett-Leath in this blog, and I have seriously considered writing her biography (but only as a study in human suffering, not crime). As I see her story, it’s a tragedy of epic proportions (I mean that literally and literarily). I don’t believe she is guilty of anything other than loving two men who died violently.
Raynella’s story is not “true crime” by any stretch of the genre’s definition:
I. Not a Long-Solved Murder
No book about the deaths of Ed Dossett and David Leath should be published until both cases have been fully litigated. As of last Friday, the conviction February 2010 was being reviewed by the circuit court judge who presided over the trial. Judge Baumgartner has two, very serious issues to consider before he decides whether or not the verdict should be overturned and a third trial conducted. One involves an eye-witness who at one time claimed to have seen a police officer tamper with the gun that killed David Leath. The other involves the validity of the jury that reached the verdict.
II. Objective Author
Diane, I know you are not involved in the Dossett-Leath case, but I don’t think that qualifies you as an objective party, either.
First, no matter how much research you’ve conducted, you can’t honestly claim that you know for a fact that any crimes have been committed. Serious, reasonable doubt remains as to whether either man was murdered, let alone by Raynella. You have not interviewed Raynella or her family. No one has interviewed Raynella. No one but her attorneys and family have been permitted to see her in prison. Talking to old high school pals of Raynella’s doesn’t cut it. Nonetheless, your book will be issued as part of the True Crime Library. That implies to readers that a crime has been committed.
I doubt you paid for a copy of the complete transcripts of both trials. Both transcripts are said to be stacks of paper several feet high. At fifty cents a page, it would bankrupt any author I know to pay for a copy.
Much of the book must be based on gossip and innuendo. I hear from Raynella’s friends that a person can hardly go out to a restaurant in the county without overhearing from neighboring tables wild rumors about the “Black Widow.” Such gossip should not be repeated in print, even when it’s labeled as rumor and gossip, because a woman’s life still hangs in the balance. It can only prejudice future jury pools.
- Sidebar: It used to be politically incorrect to accuse a woman of being a “Black Widow.” That used to be considered sexist. Oh for the good old days when sexism was a bad thing.
The Dossett-Leath trial testimony was often little more than innuendo. For example, a neighbor of Raynella’s testified in court that Raynella waved at her suspiciously as she drove past on the day of the shooting. The neighbor claimed Raynella had never waved at her before. The prosecution used this as “proof” Raynella was setting up a phony alibi.
- Sidebar: In a town where waving at a neighbor you barely know is proof of guilt, everyone should be very, very afraid. Keep your hands in your pockets.
In both trials testimony was given that barbiturates were found in David Leath’s blood. But there was no evidence presented of this, other than a crime lab’s report of a test that was supposedly conducted on a vial of his blood. Unfortunately, the vial was lost. The lab can neither prove that the test was accurate nor that the blood they tested was truly David Leath’s blood. No investigator ever bothered to track down possible sources for the drugs, either: David Leath could have ingested them intentionally. Nonetheless, the prosecutor said the lab report proved Raynella first tried to poison her husband before she shot him.
Did you interview David Leath’s daughter, a woman who understandably despises Raynella? Did she tell you how she ransacked Raynella’s lingerie drawer a day or two after her father died—while the crime scene was still being processed (or should have been)? If so, did she tell you about the holster she found there, then removed from the house, held onto to for some time, and at last turned over to the prosecutors? Oddly, she was never charged with evidence tampering. Oddly, no one ever questioned the veracity of her statement, as far as I know.
- Sidebar: In a town where a person who is likely to benefit from the death of her intestate father can try to implicate her stepmother in a crime, without repercussions, everyone should be very, very afraid. It doesn’t matter whether or not she’s being truthful. It doesn’t matter whether or not she’s justifiably vindictive against her stepmother. It doesn’t even matter whether the stepmother is guilty and the holster is evidence of that guilt. What matters is that the authorities were not skeptical and did not do their due diligence to ensure the integrity of the crime scene and of the evidence.
The Right Thing to Do
The right thing to do is to send a copy of your manuscript to Raynella’s attorneys now. At least give them time to read it before it’s published. If you uncovered information that their investigators didn’t, they need to know about it before the next trial begins.