ARTHUR JAY HARRIS
I am not the usual True Crime writer. I don’t play up the violent aspect of crime, because I don’t like it. I have empathy for victims – but in my writing, the victims are often not who you might have thought they were at the beginning of the story. I am certainly interested in achieving justice, and in three of my four books, I went very far out of my way – even to cross usual journalistic lines – to pursue information and alternate theories that turned out to be right.
But my real interest in writing True Crime is the opportunity for transparency.
In a democracy, we shouldn’t merely accept whatever is told to us, no matter the authority. We get to check, investigate, question, and when appropriate, raise our voices.
Can an authority’s story survive this level of public scrutiny? I do my part, and encourage others to do the same.
It's proper that police work is done behind walls. But when cases, especially homicides, are either solved or are no longer being actively investigated, we should have the opportunity to examine their work.
Yes, defense attorneys preparing for trial do that, but it's different for a journalist, who has no stake in the outcome. My interest is not to get a favorable outcome for a client; I do it in the public interest, to see whether the case was investigated well – and hopefully, correctly.
After 30 years of writing big True Crime stories, for periodicals and books, here’s what I’ve found:
The cops don’t get these cases right.
In the best police investigation I've reported on, Speed Kills, the cops did everything right – but still stopped short of getting the final answers.
In the worst investigations I've reported on, the cops actually made things worse.
In Flowers for Mrs. Luskin, federal prosecutors convicted the wrong suspect for an attempted murder. I documented that they had clear witness information before trial that disproved their case – but didn’t act on it. Nor had they turned it over to the defense in discovery, as the law requires.
If the trial defense didn't get it, how did I? Some luck helped.
Years after the conviction, I found out that the star witness, since placed in Witness Protection, had died. I confirmed it by getting his death certificate, which was tricky to do. That was the key to let me to get all of his federal public records. Your privacy rights expire on your death.
In them was his withheld statement. Had prosecutors owned up to it at trial, the case wouldn't have been a slam-dunk conviction. The attempted murder had happened, but the statement presented serious doubt as to who was behind it. In fact, the star witness in his statement said he didn't know – but later testified at trial that he did. Having that previous statement would have impeached the witness at trial.
Even worse than that was the famous murder case of 6-year-old Adam Walsh. First, police closed the case on a suspect 27 years after the crime, so it was only then that all the public records finally became available. In them was significantly better evidence against a different suspect. Second, the medical examiner’s files became available at the same time. I had wanted to confirm the identification of the remains of the child who was found and said to be Adam -- no one in the public had ever had the chance before -- but inexplicably, the file was missing its most crucial documents, including its autopsy report and Adam's dental records, used for comparison. That suggested that the ID of the found child as Adam wasn't as clear as they'd said, way back when. Other evidence I found and developed indicated it was overwhelmingly likely that the child who was quickly if not hastily identified as Adam – wasn’t him.
In Until Proven Innocent, the prosecutor (with a lot of initially unwanted help from the defense attorneys) realized that one of the murder suspects who the cops had targeted was wrong. That prosecutor righted the ship before trial – Wow!
And at trial against the remaining defendant, because I had already read all of the public records, I recognized the significance of a crucial piece of evidence when it was introduced. In fact, it was the only evidence that put that defendant at the crime scene – and the prosecutor and the cops hadn't realized it. When I told the prosecutor, it sealed the first-degree murder conviction of that defendant.
Everybody is entitled to make mistakes, even serious ones, even when there’s as much at stake as in a murder case. But after a case is finished, nobody should be able to permanently hide behind their walls, including police. I am fortunate to work in Florida, a pioneer for making public records available.