I am a true crime addict, unrepentantly so, and it’s all Truman Capote’s fault for writing that “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood back in 1965, about a Kansas farm family’s murder by two ex-cons. Before long, Anatomy of a Murder, a criminal defense lawyer’s true story of a bartender’s 1951 murder in Big Bay, Michigan, came into my hands, and I was on my way to ruin, descent and Helter Skelter.
“Filthy trash,” snorted my high school English teacher. My explanation that true crime was the perfect education for a would-be lawyer fell upon deaf ears. Little did she realize, I’m sure, that In Cold Blood would be hailed as a literary triumph in years to come or that Robert Traver was the pen name of a future Michigan State Supreme Court Justice. Never once in two decades of trial practice have I ever put Milton’s lessons to work, but I have put some of the tricks learned in true crime stories to good use.
True crime stories date all the way back to Cain and Abel, predating Court TV and the national fascination with O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, and JonBenet Ramsey. What Capote made literary, Dominick Dunne made classy in his monthly Vanity Fair reportage of crimes of the rich and famous.
The usual triumph of good over evil in these modern morality tales bodes even more for practicing lawyers. Packaged neatly within the covers of a good true crime story is a bird’s-eye view of the dramatis personae–the victim, the perp, the police, and the lawyers and everyone around them–as real people leading ordinary lives. Where else can a reader learn about how law enforcement operates, what the average beat cop thinks of lawyers, how other lawyers deal with lovable clients as well as those from hell, all wrapped in shards and snippets of local color? And, if you’re lucky, the story will be laced with real-life trial techniques that can be fodder for real cases. Far more effective and interesting it is to hear Vincent Bugliosi describe a conversational style of cross-examination as he defends an uncooperative, disbelieving client charged with murder on Palmyra in And the Sea Will Tell, than to pore over the rules in the sterile case analysis.
Some true crime stories are little more than a quick pastiche of news articles, tabloids for those with an attention span, tossed together to meet a publisher’s race to the bookrack. As a general rule, those written by lawyers involved in the case make for poor reading, often written in gloating vindication. The genre’s got its all-star authors, who surprisingly give each saga its unique twist. Jerry Bledsoe, Ann Rule, Ken Englade, Darcy O’Brien, Aphrodite Jones and the Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith lawyer duo all come from disparate backgrounds, but each brings that certain fly-on-the-wall approach that’s guaranteed to leave the reader with at least one new practice tip.
Believe me, crediting true crime stories with making better lawyers is definitely not the counterpart to claims of reading Playboy only for the interviews. Sure, there’s an element of voyeurism, just as many of us truthfully can’t take our eyes off a gruesome car accident or the cover of the National Enquirer. The rest of the story lies far beyond the uniformly boring volumes of a trial transcript. Where else can you get an evening’s continuing legal education for the paltry sum of $5.95, provided you’re willing to endure those funny looks and sneers?
Originally published in SOLO (Fall 1999 Volume 7, Number 1).