I haven’t read any “true crime” books before, but I downloaded a sample because: hey, Bill James! I bought the book because in the sample he talked about why it’s considered somewhat uncivilized to be interested in crimes covered by the media. He sort of defends the practice by saying a lot of them raise real issues about our criminal justice system, and it was kind of convincing. There’s also the fact that a) James is an entertaining writer, and b) there’s something that appeals to me about hearing the story of what really happened in these cases given what we know now. James isn’t shy about saying what he thinks really happened (or at least whether there was enough evidence to convict), and that appeals to me.
So, most of the book is a series of “famous crimes” in the US, starting with Elma Sands in 1799 all the way up to OJ and JonBenet Ramsey. (by a “series” I mean he easily covers more than 50) Along the way, he’ll also stop to comment about related topics like the success rate of the judicial system, the evolution of the legal system, and why arguing someone had motive, means, and opportunity is not even close to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of convictions.
Two of the more interesting asides were:
– Showing his true stat-nerd colors (God bless him!), he proposes a mathematical system to evaluate the evidence against a defendant. He comes up with a fairly reasonable system where each piece of evidence gets a weight, presumably normalized by its type, like “defendant bore malice towards the victim” or “defendant was untruthful in describing events around the time of the crime”. You then discount how unproven and irrelevant it is, add all the values up, and see if you get to 100.
– He proposes a grand idea for prison reform, making a lot of prisons that only hold (say) 24 inmates, and each prison has a “level” between one and ten, corresponding to the privileges prisoners get. (Level one is like a Supermax, and level ten is really more like a halfway house than a prison)
Other interesting bits:
– I didn’t know anything about Lizzie Borden’s case, but she was totally innocent. Neat!
– The story of William Goebel was pretty interesting – James says that his assassination may have prevented a Kentuckian civil war!
– He talks about the murder of William Marsh Rice – yay!
– Earl Rogers was the real-life model for Perry Mason!
– There’s a long section on JonBenet Ramsey, and despite the fact that the police and DA bungled the investigation so badly, the parents were almost certainly innocent.
I don’t think I’m going to get into true crime books much more, although I may seek out more Bill James books – his writing style really livens up the book!