When he was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother would tell him, “You can’t understand the most important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” That’s exactly what Stevenson does for all of us with his new book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The book focuses on the case of Walter McMillian, a man who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row.
McMillian was arrested for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, the 18-year-old daughter of a well-respected family in Monroeville, Alabama. Despite a lack of physical evidence and the existence of several witnesses who could place him miles away at the time of the crime, McMillian was convicted of capital murder. Stevenson took on his appeal while working for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta. After a lengthy appeals process, McMillian was exonerated and released in 1993 after spending six years on death row.
Readers will be astonished that these events actually took place as the book reads like a legal thriller that would do John Grisham proud. The story has a unique literary connection as well. McMillian lived in Monroe County, Alabama, home of To Kill a Mockingbird-author Harper Lee. Just Mercy is a gripping and thought-provoking read that would also be a great choice for book clubs.
Stevenson is now a law professor and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to those who have been denied fair treatment in the legal system. His TED Talk on race and justice has been viewed over 1.25 million times, and it was named one of five essential TED Talks by The New Yorker. You can view it on BCPL’s Tumblr.
Early on the morning of September 22, 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw’s vehicle went left of center, striking another car. The occupants of that car, Jim Furfaro and Keith O’Dell, were killed on impact in the resulting accident. When questioned by police on the scene, Reggie told them that he thought he had hydroplaned. Upon further investigation, police found that Reggie had been texting at the time of the accident. In fact, he had sent and received 11 text messages in the moments leading up to the crash and was likely texting at the moment of impact. Matt Richtel’s new book A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention begins with the story of this tragic accident and examines how the immense increase of technology in recent years has impacted our ability to process information and focus.
It’s probably not at all surprising that we are more distracted today than ever before. The rapid growth of technology has exponentially increased the amount of information our brains process every day. In fact, a study showed that people consumed three times the amount of information in 2008 as they did in 1960. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the dangers of distracted driving, examines the effects that technology has on our ability to focus. What he finds is both timely and fascinating. A Deadly Wandering revolves around the accident and resulting legal case, but that’s not the whole story. Richtel also includes data that neuroscientists like Dr. Adam Gazzaley have found relating to how today’s technology has impacted our cognitive abilities.
This is a compelling work of narrative nonfiction, written by an author who clearly knows how to tell a story. Richtel humanizes the issue while sharing fascinating scientific research into one of the most important issues today. This story is guaranteed to capture your attention.
'You can run but you can’t hide' could be the motto for Mike Earp and David Fisher’s book U.S. Marshals: Inside America’s Most Storied Law Enforcement Agency. Earp, a retired associate director of operations for the Marshals Service, served with the organization for nearly 30 years, and has the hair-raising stories to prove it. The Marshals are tasked with bringing in some of America’s most wanted, and they do it well. In 2012, they arrested 123,006 fugitives and each marshal averaged four felony convictions apiece. Created by Congress in 1798, the service has both an illustrious and romanticized past, and chapters in this book often begin with historical accounts about the OK Corral, wild west African-American Marshal Bass Reeves or the capture of Billy the Kid. Packed with tales of stake-outs, stings and chases, U.S. Marshals tracks the growth of this law enforcement agency from a deputized posse on horseback to the tech-savvy federal agency with international reach and task force authority doing what Marshals do best: getting the bad guys off the streets.
Detective work of another kind also figures in The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. Author Deborah Halber says that “tens of thousands of unidentified human remains” are in storage across the United States. Enter the modern Miss Marple; townspeople are sitting at their home computers, using the Internet to match up clues to give these anonymous deceased an identity and provide some closure to families whose loved ones have disappeared. Working independently or using online resources like the aptly named Doe Network forum or NamUs, a federal website for missing persons, civilians sift through images, news stories and databases, connecting dots and solving cases which had confounded the police. True crime readers will enjoy The Skeleton Crew, following the hobbyists’ detective work which leads to real-life mysteries solved.
“Oh God, he stabbed me! Help me!” was the cry eventually heard around the world. In Kew Gardens, Queens, on Friday, March 13, 1964, this shout for help was heard by 38 bystanders, all of whom watched a young woman being killed and did nothing. Or so The New York Times reported. In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, award-winning author Kevin Cook brings fresh perspective to a case and story which grew and has remained in the public mind as a cautionary tale of urban decline and apathy.
Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender who lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood, was coming home from a shift that fateful early Friday morning when she was stabbed by an assailant who ran off but then came back and attacked her a second time. As the legend which grew around the crime reports, 38 residents in nearby apartment buildings all watched the attack, more than half an hour long, and did nothing to help. This crime prompted sociological research about when individuals were most likely to help, leading to a theory known as the “bystander effect.” It also encouraged the establishment of a national 911 number so people could more efficiently report crimes.
As Cook reveals, the story, which has been countlessly retold, is not the full story of what happened that morning. There were several individuals who police did consider to be true villains for their apathetic response. However, others saw only a glimpse of what had happened and were unaware that a crime had occurred. Other concerned individuals did phone the police. Covering more than just the crime, Cook explores the vibrant life of the young victim, the cold-blooded calculation of the killer Winston Mosley and the restlessness and explosive nature of the city and country in the ’60s. Alternately dramatic and sobering, this book is a must-read for anyone who remembers this story from the newspapers or a social psychology textbook. Ultimately, in a city that appeared on the brink of social crisis, there were still individuals who did good.
New reporter Rebekah Roberts is haunted by the mother who abandoned her to return to her secretive Hasidic family. After a childhood in sunny Florida with her adoring father and stepmother, Roberts moves to New York with dreams of becoming a renowned journalist. In Julia Dahl’s debut novel Invisible City, the world of print media is fading fast. However, Roberts lands a job as a glorified tabloid reporter, sent to the scene of the seediest crimes where she hopes to eke out a living reporting facts that someone else will write. After receiving a call to report to a crime scene, she finds herself immersed in the murder mystery of a Hasidic woman who is from the same community as Roberts’ mother is.
When Roberts meets Jewish detective Saul Katz at the home of the victim, he recognizes her based on her uncanny resemblance to the mother she never knew and she is catapulted into a world shrouded in tradition and secrets. With each new fact she discovers, another question replaces it. Her past motivates her to dig further, which leads her into undeniable danger.
With each new turn of the mystery, Roberts finds herself learning more and more about her mother’s Hasidic world. Roberts watches the body taken away by Jewish “police” instead of the medical examiner. She learns that an autopsy will not be conducted, and the victim buried before evidence can be collected. Clearly a murder, the case might never be solved unless Roberts can expose the truth behind the crime and her own ties to the community.
Well, gee, who doesn’t want the ease of a life cushioned by wealth and the power that big money confers. Don’t forget a name to go with that money: A name which, when used, causes a table to open up at a restaurant or a museum open after hours for an impromptu private tour. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter wanted all of this, too, so he took a shortcut and started calling himself Clark Rockefeller. Marylanders may remember when the “Rockefeller” scams unraveled; he was arrested in Baltimore in 2008, subject of a much publicized manhunt following his abduction of his daughter during a court-supervised visitation. Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn reveals Gerhartsreiter’s long term deceits spanning over a quarter century involving multiple identities.
How could Gerhartsreiter fool so many people for such a long time? Author Kirn is particularly well-placed to examine this issue since he considered Clark Rockefeller a friend for over 10 years, a friendship which began when Kirn traveled cross-country to deliver a paralyzed dog being adopted by Rockefeller. Kirn was never adequately reimbursed for his trip expenses, setting a precedent which remained unchanged throughout their association. From landlords to exclusive social clubs to women, Gerhartsreiter duped them all, impersonating Ivy League grads, British aristocracy and America’s hoi polloi. He lived by leeching off people willing to turn a blind eye to discrepancy in return for the satisfaction of rubbing elbows with what Gerhartsreiter purported to represent.
Blood Will Out unmasks Gerhartsreiter to reveal not an urbane gentleman but a dangerous and manipulative con man who ultimately was convicted of the grisly killing of a former neighbor. Kirn’s honest evaluation of his own willingness to believe an obvious liar and become part of the deception exposes the symbiotic nature of a relationship between the swindler and the swindled.
“The paranoia was fulfilled” – that’s how Joan Didion described the murders carried out in 1969 by Charles Manson and his band of devoted followers known as “The Family.” Translation? The late sixties were already a time of intense political change and civil unrest. Throw in sensationalized murders and an equally dramatic trial, and this period was officially the craziest and most unsettling in American history, no matter one’s political or ideological leanings. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn traces the hardscrabble origins of the boy who grew up to become the infamous cult leader and murderer. Although Manson did have a somewhat unstable home life, he exaggerated or fabricated childhood tales of woe to win sympathy and devotion from his followers. In the true fashion of an “opportunistic sociopath,” as Guinn describes him, Manson used skills obtained in prison, like Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People program, to manipulate followers and bring them under his control. His teachings that “Helter Skelter”, the end of an orderly American society, was close at hand led to the “Tate murders,” where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed. Additionally, his followers murdered several other people before and after this most infamous crime.
Guinn does an excellent job alternating national and world history with Manson’s development, meticulously chronicling his childhood and adolescence in and out of reform schools, his young adulthood as a petty repeat criminal, and his time in Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood that was the epicenter for the darker side of the hippie movement where Manson did much of his initial recruiting. Those who enjoyed Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will appreciate this in-depth account of these suspenseful and chilling crimes. As James Lee Burke writes in his cover review: “Hang on, reader. This is a rip-roaring ride you won’t forget.”
In the eyes of society, five young women were lost even before they went physically missing and found dead. In Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker vividly details not only a modern-day true crime case but also the stories of these women who slipped through the cracks of American society. Melissa Barthelemy. Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Shannan Gilbert. Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello. Megan Waterman. None of these became household names like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway did when they were reported missing. In fact, for several of them, their relatives had trouble being taken seriously by law enforcement. Yet all five women had personal histories, albeit with many common threads. They all grew up in towns without a lot of economic opportunities, they all had troubled family backgrounds, and several had children of their own they struggled to support. They all turned to prostitution as a way to make ends meet. And all of their bodies were discovered in the Oak Beach, NY area, a sparsely populated strip of land off the coast of Long Island.
Kolker masterfully interweaves the histories of these five women with suspenseful and frustrating elements of the crime investigation, including questionable detective work and an uncooperative beach town with secrets of its own. Ultimately, this is still a cold case, with speculation about whether all five died at the hands of the same person(s). Kolker also traces the evolution of prostitution, with women now being able to find clients through sites like Craigslist. This Internet business model belies the dangers that still exist in this line of work and has made it all the easier for those in desperate situations to sell themselves. For true crime fans, this is a book to read not only for the unsolved murders but for what it reveals about overlooked pockets of American life today.
The group that the L.A. Times dubbed “The Bling Ring” was an unlikely band of seven privileged, fame-obsessed teenage thieves who gained entry into multiple celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 using information that was widely available online. Perhaps the most astonishing part of their crime spree was how long they were able to get away with it and how easy it really was. Entertainment journalist Nancy Jo Sales brings us the full story in The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped off Hollywood and Shocked the World.
Sales first published the story in a 2010 Vanity Fair article titled “The Suspect Wore Louboutins.” It is now expanded in this in-depth exposé. The thieves monitored their victims’ whereabouts using social media posts and websites like TMZ. They found the celebrities’ mansions using Google maps and a website mapping locations of celebrity houses. When they went to the victims’ homes, they found that many of the houses were unlocked or that the alarm systems were disabled, making it simple for them to enter the homes and take whatever they wanted. They stole about $3 million worth of clothing, jewelry and other property over the course of a year. The list of their victims is a who’s who of young Hollywood stars, including Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge and Orlando Bloom. They reportedly broke into Paris Hilton’s house multiple times before they were apprehended.
The group’s crimes inspired the film, The Bling Ring, starring Emma Watson and written and directed by Sofia Coppola, available on DVD in September.
Something very wrong was happening to patients at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mysterious deaths and a higher than usual number of unexplained incidents followed nurse Charlie Cullen as he hopscotched from one hospital to the next. In The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, Charles Graeber relays a chilling, true crime account of a board-certified nurse who killed an unknown number of the hospitals’ most vulnerable patients over the span of 16 years. More disturbing was the hospitals’ handling of it. Although Cullen had been dismissed or summarily fired from jobs, he never seemed to have problems finding another position. Fearful of appearing incompetent or risking internal investigation, hospitals did not report missing drugs or unusual deaths. Cullen was often allowed to resign with the promise that incidents would not show up on his record. Even when police investigators became involved in 2003, one of the hospitals blatantly lied about their ability to access data showing which drugs were requested by which nurses.
The Good Nurse is the result of six years of research by Graeber, including interviews with a now- imprisoned Cullen. Through these interviews, plus police records and court documents, Graeber reconstructs Cullen’s violent family history and the convoluted methods he used to manipulate the hospitals’ drug-dispensing systems in order to kill patients with overdoses. He gives readers insight into a complex man who could just as easily build rapport with co-workers and woo women as he could mercilessly kill the sick and infirm. The total number of victims will never be known, although Graeber describes him as “perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history,” with estimates as high as 300 deaths. True crime and medical thriller readers shouldn’t miss this story of a “good nurse” with deadly intentions, and the detectives who were in a race against time to arrest him before he killed again.