Every crime is unique. Despite that uniqueness, every crime contains its teachable moments. Below is a book review I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle that appeared in print earlier this month. The lessons are multiple.
PRESUMED DEAD: A True Life Murder Mystery
By Henry K. Lee
Berkley, 445 pages, $7.99
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
Nina Sharanova Reiser disappeared from her life in Oakland, California, on Sept. 3, 2006, leaving behind her six-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. Her estranged husband, Hans Reiser, insisted Nina left of her own accord while trying to throw suspicion on him as a murderer.
It is uncertain whether anybody believed Hans Reiser. Certainly the police did not believe him. But police could not find Nina’s body. It is conventional wisdom within the law enforcement establishment that it is unwise to file a murder charge against a suspect without physical remains to prove somebody is dead. After all, a wise defense lawyer could say on behalf of a client during trial something akin to “reasonable doubt must prevail. The alleged victim could walk into the courtroom 60 seconds from now. You cannot convict my client of a violent crime because perhaps no crime occurred.”
Police and prosecutors in Oakland decided to defy conventional wisdom, believing they could convict Hans Reiser based on circumstantial evidence.
Henry K. Lee reported about the Reiser case for the San Francisco Chronicle, as he has reported about many other cases, from the dramatic to the relatively mundane. As Lee says in the Foreword to his book about the Reiser case, “I have written about gang shootings, horrific traffic accidents and all manner of incidents that have irreparably changed—or claimed the lives of—the young and the old, the rich and the poor, hardworking citizens and drug offenders, police officers and criminals. I chronicle the heartbreak and the pain, telling stories of the horrible things that people do to each other.”
After 18 years of such reporting, Lee says it is reasonable to ask why he continues. “The answer is simple, and it comes in the form of these fundamental questions: What would it mean for society if these crimes were just swept under the rug? What if nobody cared? What if victims weren’t given a voice, an opportunity—sometimes from beyond the grave—to be heard?”
Lee gives Nina Reiser a voice, as he chronicles her upbringing in Russia, her education as a physician there, her agreement to marry Hans after he searched in the unfamiliar nation for a bride. Lee brings remarkable detail to a marriage that start out oddly but well, and how it fell apart, with the two children suffering even when their mother still lived.
Inexpensive paperback books, especially of the true-crime variety, generally carry a reputation as sensationalistic, and often shoddily reported. Berkley, part of the Penguin conglomerate, is one of several publishers that offer true-crime paperbacks regularly, sometimes as often as every month.
Lee’s book, published as an inexpensive paperback, is gruesome on many pages, but never sensationalistic. The reporting is impressive and the writing is clear. Lay readers (those who are not part of the criminal justice system) will receive not only entertainment (of a depressing nature), but also learn a great deal about how police detectives, forensic analysts, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, jurors and child welfare workers function. An easy-to-digest yet didactic murder story is quite an accomplishment.
The headline of this post is taken from the Chicago Tribune. Reporters Lisa Black and Steve Mills wrote the story under the headline for the July 11 front page.
My blog has addressed the role of false confessions in wrongful convictions previously. I call attention to the Chicago Tribune story partly to make a positive point about investigative journalism, which is under siege these days.
The point is this: More than a decade ago, the Chicago Tribune assembled three reporters, Mills, Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong. They investigated wrongful convictions from numerous angles. Along with theireditor and photographer colleagues, the three reporters accomplished what might be the best sustained, consequential investigative reporting in the history of the craft.
One result: The governor of Illinois, who had entered office as a death penalty supporter, placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. Why? Because he realized he could no longer trust the conduct of police, prosecutors, judges and juries in Cook County capital cases.
The Chicago Tribune has fallen on tough times in recent years, in large part because of its new owner, Sam Zell, who might represent the nadir of newspaper publishers. Armstrong and Possley left. So did many of their editor and photographer colleagues. Mills, obviously, remained.
Every contribution Mills and his Tribune colleagues make to understanding the ridiculously common phenomenon of wrongful convictions will be welcome.
Many lay readers (and some lawyers without backgrounds in criminal justice) find the concept of repeated wrongful convictions across the nation beyond the realm of their thinking. How could a vaunted criminal justice system–Isn’t the USA best at everything, after all?–malfunction so often? How could all the supposed safeguards represented by police detectives, prosecutors, forensic examiners, judges, defense attorneys and jurors come tumbling down?
Well, Terry Ganey, a superb investigative journalist in mid-Missouri, has recently published an in-depth look at what appears to be the wrongful conviction of Dale Helmig. The story appeared last Saturday (July 10) in the St. Louis Beacon, an online only newspaper.
I have never read any clearer explanation of how much can go wrong during a murder prosecution, and why. (I have investigated the Helmig conviction on my own, although I have never published anything in depth about it. I am 99 percent certain of his innocence, and, assuming Dale Helmig is indeed innocent, I agree with Helmig’s current appellate lawyer about the identity of the most likely actual murderer.
Yes, the headline derives from a popular song by recorded decades ago by Anne Murray. If you’ve never listened to the surprisingly deep, bracing lyrics, never listened to Murray deliver those lyrics with feeling, I recommend you listen.
But I mention the song not for the entertainment value. Rather, it entered my mind unbidden after yet another day of me reading the Innocence Blog.
Regular readers of “In Justice” have seen my words praising the daily compilation of news regarding imprisoned women and men who are actuallhy innocent and working for their freedom against huge odds imposed by the criminal justice system.
Well, like the Anne Murray character in the song, I’d like to experience a day without reading the Innocence Blog–not reading it because nobody who helps compile it could find anything new to share about wrongful convictions.
I hope fervently that police detectives, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges will collaborate to repair the criminal justice system so that wrongful convictions never occur again.