Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why Crime History Matters

by Laura James

Unfortunately, the media often errs badly in its crime reporting because some reporters don't know a thing about the history of crime. And I guess they're too lazy to look it up before speaking on the subject.

For some reason, the natural tendency is to make it up—and get it wrong.

And that's too bad, because many times, some historical perspective might inform any given situation.

One example everyone knows: the press has erred badly in its coverage of the JonBenét Ramsey case on one small but perhaps important detail.

"Sex murderers never leave ransom notes." That's what the experts told us in the JonBenét Ramsey case. For years, in fact, that "fact" has been repeated.

It's always dangerous to talk in absolutes when the subject is human behavior, but there you have it.

And it wasn't true. One has to wonder just how much this error colored early perceptions of the case.

William Heirens was a sex killer. He left a ransom note. He kidnapped a little girl from the bedroom of her family home in the middle of the night, and later raped and killed her. Then he went on to kill again.

His name should sound familiar. No other inmate alive in a U.S. prison today has served longer than William Heirens, who went to prison in 1946. That's sixty-two years, and counting, behind bars.

While the press often get their precedents messed up, another type of error is more common: the tendency of some reporters to grossly exaggerate the historical significance of an event that is already, in and of itself, a very shocking crime that requires no exaggeration.

Reporters covering the terrible shooting massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 called it "the worst massacre in U.S. history." That's a verbatim quote from Newsweek and from Time and from many, many others. No adjectives were omitted. And it was just flat-out a misstatement of fact.

Was it hysteria that caused so many journalists to overstate the matter as they did? Really, "the worst massacre in U.S. history"?

Thirty-two people died at Virginia Tech (Wiki).

That is far less than the Oklahoma City bombing (168 victims), Wounded Knee (300 victims), Mountain Meadows Massacre (100+ victims), or 9/11 (2,998 victims).

Alas, the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech could not even be called the "worst school massacre in U.S. history," though dozens of media outlets in fact did call it that.

It wasn't. A sad record still stands. The worst school massacre in U.S. history remains the Bath School Massacre, which claimed 45 lives in 1927. Not everyone has forgotten them.


Levi said...

Hi Laura, interesting post!

I would still say a pedophile leaving a ransom note is very slim, maybe there are a few cases, but it still must be rare, since their motives are not monetary. I think a good argument can still be made about the staging of a crime scene in the Ramsey case.

Also, the media likes to make a story as sensational as they can, which is why I bet they called the VT shootings, the worst massacre in U.S. History.

The media is supposed to be a watchdog, but I guess there needs to be people like you to be the watchdog of the media when they don't know their crime history!

Great first post!


Rj said...

Damn. Another great article following the one yesterday. You all are on a roll.

Typifying human behavior, in relation to crimes, is dangerous, especially in crimes like rape...because anyone outside of the "mold" is assumed to have NOT committed the crime. That's how the defense gets them off and fools the jury (and the media magnifies it) People are just people. Behavior is just behavior. Certain things correlate, obviously not causation.

And lastly, psychology is not science.

KarenO said...

what's even more disgusting is that the media always counts the murderer(s) among the "killed". I haven't figured out if it's to drove up the body count or because they believe all criminals are the result of something we, as a nation, caused--or failed to detect.

Laura James said...

Hi folks,
Thanks for your comments.

Levi, thanks. I think everyone agrees that there was some sort of what is sometimes called "staging" at that crime scene. But who did it? I still say some history and precedents might have altered early perceptions about that case. One day, I hope, there will be a DNA match and our questions might be answered.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Great post, Laura. Welcome!

Anonymous said...

Levi doesnt believe in DNA Laura.

Levi said...

Actually any DNA in that case wasn't worth any evidentiary value Anonymous.

Levi said...

Laura, I have a question regarding William Heirens. Was his ransom note typed? Obviously in the 40's he would have had to have used a type writer...

Kathryn Casey said...

Welcome, Laura. Great post.

cheryl said...

I find Levi's posts to be very interesting, and in this instance, I must agree. The dna found on the underwear etc. could have come from the factory in Taiwan or wherever it was made.

As far as the ransom note goes, Bwahahaha....I don't know what I "should" think, but I know what I DO think.

Levi said...

Thanks cheryl :)

Kathleen said...

The point is well taken, that writing
about mass killings is incredibly imprecise. Each life taken is of equal worth until due process for
murderers and murdered is complete.

After 911, due process consisted
of the killing of what will be,
eventually, well over a million lives and the torture of many thousands rounded up simply because of their nationality or religion.

The propaganda surrounding the John
Walker case focused on a inexperience of a CIA officer who
tortured an American Muslim surrounded by thousands of men who
were there only to surrender.

He was on a frount that, as a repeated Indian report, was guarding the Indian-Pakistani border, having already made a peace
agreement with the Indian Secular Government. There was no combat on the border and he was a non-combatant. His crime seemed to
be not hating Muslims, and in fact
being a Muslim.

Many have died for no greater crime.

In the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the victims are portrayed
as starving, when actually they
had 800 head of fattened cattle and were unwilling to follow instructions that would have put them out of harms way.

The Massacre occurred near the end of two years of war, and no distinction has been made between
the braggadocio of those who admitted intimate knowledge of past
sexual assaults and the train which these men had attached to like leaches.

The victim died, in part, from not knowing who to trust. Exumation
of the mass grave revealed far more
dead than the oft repeated 120. I am not sure why.

While most were innocent and the massacre indefensible, some were
self-confessed bushwhackers

Anonymous said...

Ok, if this DNA was found on ONE piece of clothing then I would agree with you 2 halfwits.

But on the contrary, it was found in the blood in her panties. And the inside and outside of the sides of long underwear she wore over them.

And none of it matched the Ramsey's.

Thanking Levi is thanking someone who cannot face he is wrong.

I wonder if he still thinks Gary Contit did in Chandra Levy.

Just because he cant admit he is wrong.

A Voice of Sanity said...

William Heirens was a sex killer

He killed no one. As a teen, he stood up to savagely brutal torture inflicted on him by the Chicago PD, including help from a doctor in order to make the level of pain excruciating. Finally, he was extorted into a guilty plea and even in that the prosecution betrayed the nation in the way he was treated. This is a case which has eternally stained the city, the state and the nation.

cheryl said...

We're halfwits? At least we know how to spell.

Laura James said...

To answer Levi's question - Heirens's ransom note was handwritten.

Regardless of how he created it, how long it was, what it said... the point is, the man who kidnapped, raped, and killed little Susanne Degnan did indeed leave a ransom note.

So that curious instict to leave a ransom note does in fact reside in the mind of at least one very infamous American sex killer, and the media should have told the public that fact rather than the opposite.

I would not believe anyone who told me that such notes are "rare," either. Not unless they'd researched the question appropriately.

A Voice of Sanity said...

See The handwriting evidence for a summary.
Quote: "Independent handwriting expert George W. Schwartz was brought in to give his opinion. He stated flatly that:

"The individual characteristics in the two writings do not compare in any respect."

Another theory destroyed by facts!

Laura James said...

A Voice of Sanity, I love your strong opinions and often agree with them.

But if we set aside the question of Heirens' guilt for a minute, SOMEBODY (a) left a ransom note when kidnapping a child from her home and (b) that person raped and killed her.

Whoever it was, it's relevant to the Ramsey matter by way of example.

A Voice of Sanity said...

The JonBenet Ramsey case.

A true ransom note:


Note that this is 6 words max. (the first 4 would suffice).

What was left, the three page so-called 'ransom note', was not a ransom note. It was a terroristic threat. When the home was broken into it could have been robbed or vandalized. Instead, the burglar found the paper (and pen?) and wrote the note, intending to leave it to frighten the parents. That was the first crime.

Trapped when the family returned, he hid in the house. Intending to leave after they went to sleep instead he was tempted to look at the child, and he then took her downstairs, probably meaning to leave her in the basement to frighten the parents even more. It is possible that he dropped her head first on a step of the stairs (the never found murder weapon) as she wriggled causing the head injury, then strangled her to prevent her making noise, using what was to hand. He then left as he came in, through the basement window.

What has confused everyone is the fact that these are two different but connected crimes, the note; and the abduction, which led into each other but had a single motive, fear. The note was not driven by the second crime, it was intended to stand alone.

The person responsible was almost certainly a 14 year old (at the time) white male. He lived in the area or went there regularly. Anyone much younger couldn't have done it. Anyone much older wouldn't have.

The note reads like a high school assignment, and the 'practice' note is very telling. Who else would write it and why else would they?

Had the police checked with all local schools it is likely they could have located the author at that time.


The 'Heirens' case

43-year-old Josephine Ross and 30-year-old Frances Brown may have been killed by the same person but probably were killed by two separate people.

Six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was certainly killed by someone else.

None was killed by Heirens.

TLTL said...

You have a great imagination AVOS.

Anonymous said...

I think this 16 year old needs better mentors dear.

Sorry I spelled Condit wrong. Maybe it was Freudian.

Still, he should not be taken seriously because he is about what age Jon Benet would have been. And is under the spell of Pat Brown, who didnt investigate WHERE the DNA came from, but that it was not a proven method. But ignored that it was a match 3 times from the case.

The Ramsey's didnt do it.

And while you may not be a half-wit because you agree with this pimple faced teenager, you may want to look at what he writes. Levi is most definitely a not fully formed adult, and is obsessive by nature. And like most teenagers will not accept defeat, even when proven wrong.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Anonymous TLTL said... "You have a great imagination AVOS".

True, and an extremely analytical mind. I also judge on evidence, not hysterical emotion.

Anonymous said...

The Ramsey's did it. The ransome note was a Patsy rant actually a confession. The reason they were'nt charged is the same one across America. We have a badly run legal system. No accountability. It's even worse for women and children.

Anyone who's been through will atest to what I'm saying. Criminal rigthts are way over the top, victim rights are non-existent.

cheryl said...

To the first Anon...I'll take your remarks as a half hearted apology for calling me a half-wit. So what if Levi is a teenager?

I agree with the premise of this article, that the media does spin the numbers etc. in many cases. Hell, they play fast and loose with the facts. I have found misinformation on this very website!! It doesn't mean that there is a conspiracy afloat.

Grow up, Anon, and quit being so nasty to people who hold a different opinion.

cheryl said...

Also, a brand new package of underwear or long johns with factory handler dna on them could spread to other garments via touch. FYI.

Anonymous said...

Cheryl, there were 2 items of clothing with different types of DNA on them. The long johns had the touch DNA, and it was located at the sides of her long johns. You know, exactly where most people would pull them down?

The DNA found in her panties that matched was in the crotch. Do the math here. This is no longer a matter of opinion. The Ramsey's were proven innocent.

cheryl said...

I never said the Ramseys were guilty, did I? You are responding to the new spin on news which is trying to under report,or give "the other side of the story" in an extreme way. The dna evidence doesn't really mean anything. And that's the truth.

Levi said...

First off, I am not a teenager. I'm in my 20's.

I obviously struck a cord to get this anonymous, all worked up, which is hilarious.

Anyways Anonymous, you need a big dose of common sense.

The DNA on the long johns didn't have enough markers to provide a match to the DNA in the underwear.

If the Ramsey's were innocent why did they refuse to speak to police until 4 months after their daughter died? Why did they put time limits and restrictions in place when they finally agreed to be questioned? Why did they not agree to be interviewed separate?

And why was John Ramsey within minutes of discovering his Childs body making arrangements to leave for Atlanta? Why did he and Patsy hire criminal defense lawyers within 24 hrs?

DNA doesn't answer those questions.

Also let's not forget that the duct tape over her mouth was put there post mortem, obviously staging the scene to make it look like an intruder.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I will take the Scientist's conclusions over yours considering the DNA Levi.

The Ramsey's lawyered up because it was the smart thing to do as the police were focusing on them. Its really quite simple. Getting a lawyer does not make someone guilty. I certainly would have lawyered up. Ever hear of David Dowaliby?

A killer can obviously make a crime scense seem staged dont you think?

cheryl said...

Yeah, if he he or she has an inordinate amount of time on their hands, like Diane Downs, or Casey Anthony (oops...she hasn't been convicted yet) Susan Smith...etc.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Hmmm. Well, Jodi Ann Arias didn't do such a great job. How silly to launder(!) the camera but leave the memory card behind.

Anonymous said...

I have read some rather silly things in my time and this article ranks way up there. Let’s take a close look.

The writer makes this assertion;

“Unfortunately, the media often errs badly in its crime reporting because some reporters don't know a thing about the history of crime. And I guess they're too lazy to look it up before speaking on the subject.”

I happen to agree with Ms. James on till she gives her reasons for her rational on her statement. Then it seems she will fall victim to her own admonishments of others. I will examine her statements and size them up against the facts.

Ms. James says;
“William Heirens was a sex killer.”

I have not found anyplace that says his murdered victims were sexually assaulted. Albeit, he had some strange sex fetishes but I can’t find anyplace that claims he acted out his demented sex play on his victims. Did I miss something about his case OR is Ms Jones, “And I guess they're too lazy to look it up before speaking on the subject.”

Still Ms James has this to say;
“He left a ransom note.”

In truth, he MIGHT have left a note. What the reader is not conveniently told is that there are no less than 5 handwriting experts that say both the note and the lipstick writings on the wall are not in Heirens handwriting. But, that little fact would not have fit well in her thesis. OR “And I guess they're too lazy to look it up before speaking on the subject.”

If that is not enough Ms James has this to say;
“He kidnapped a little girl from the bedroom of her family home in the middle of the night, and later raped and killed her.”

Are you Psychic? ESP? Would you please show me where it is claimed that this child was raped before he butchered her?

Last quote from Ms James;
“Then he went on to kill again.”

The last person Heirens murdered WAS the little girl. He “went on” to be captured whilst trying to rob someone else. Therefore, he went on to kill nobody else.
The whole point here is not to discuss the innocence or guilt of a confessed murder. You bash the media for making grandiose leaps of statements and facts. In which, you do the same damn thing. Shame on you Ms James.

A Voice of Sanity said...

And there never was any evidence Heirens killed anyone. He was blackmailed into a confession after severe torture over a long period failed to extract one. The crimes were actually committed by two or more separate killers, none of whom were ever apprehended.