This year’s widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism have shined a spotlight on long-standing problems in the criminal justice system, prompting many to seek out additional context in order to better understand the issues. For instance, Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning documentary, 13th, which examines how the U.S. criminal justice system targets Black Americans, is a 2016 Netflix release that saw viewership soar in June.
Stories about those who cheat the system also drew attention. In May, Netflix began airing the docu-series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, showing how he was able to run a sex-trafficking ring for decades without police intervention. The day after the program debuted it was at the top of the streaming service’s most-watched list.
Forthcoming true crime books cover similar territory, delving into entrenched inequalities and highlighting abuses of power and privilege.
“I’ve been excited to see true crime move toward social justice and become a way to examine stories where wrongs need to be righted,” says Clio Seraphim, an editor at Random House, which is releasing Two Truths and a Lie by Ellen McGarrahan in February.
In 1990, McGarrahan, then a reporter for the Miami Herald, witnessed the botched execution of Jesse Tafero, who was convicted of killing two police officers in Florida. Two years later, evidence came forward linking others to the crime. In 2015, having been haunted by Tafero’s death for decades, McGarrahan, who had since become a private investigator, used her skills to reexamine the case. In the book, she interrogates the ongoing practice of the death penalty in the U.S.
Gordon Shufelt, a retired attorney and administrative law judge, looks back more than a century in The Uncommon Case of Daniel Brown (Kent State Univ., Feb. 2021) and finds familiar, and troublesome, patterns in law enforcement. In 1875 Baltimore, Daniel Brown, a Black man, was killed at his home by a white officer. Citywide protests against Brown’s killing and against warrantless police incursion into Black homes ensued.
Shufelt says the conditions that led to Brown’s death are pervasive, and persist. “It’s the people who control the police—police commissioners, higher-up officers in the police force—who set rules and give guidelines for how other policemen are supposed to operate.”
In The Rope (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2021), Alex Tresniowski also examines the long the history of targeted policing. In 1910 in Asbury Park, N.J., Tom Williams, a Black ex-boxer, was framed for the murder of a 10-year-old white girl, Marie Smith. “Williams was rounded up as a convenient suspect,” says Tresniowski, a longtime magazine journalist and the author or coauthor of numerous books including the 2005 true crime thriller The Vendetta. “Nobody really thought he did it, but they threw him in jail and came very close to lynching him.”
In what PW’s review called a “vivid history,” Tresniowski entwines Williams’s story with that of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells. She “helped to create the NAACP,” the review continued, “whose lawyers worked to free innocent Black men, including Tom Williams.”
Tresniowski says The Rope shows that current calls for justice are not an anomaly. “The system is not broken; it’s working just fine,” he says. “The problem is how it was built.”
Marie Pantojan, editor at Random House, agrees. “It’s a paradox that we’re all too familiar with these days: the idea of American police as an institution that’s supposed to protect us, and yet they exploit the vulnerability of the populace they’re supposed to protect.”
Pantojan edited the March 2021 Random House release We Own This City. In it, Justin Fenton, a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, investigates Baltimore’s notorious Gun Trace Task Force and the havoc it wreaked. Sgt. Wayne Jenkins headed up the unit, which was created in 2007 to get guns off the street, but instead devolved into a criminal operation.
Between 2017 and 2018, eight officers from the unit were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes including robbery, racketeering conspiracy, and falsifying records. “Wayne Jenkins had been dabbling in these corrupt practices for years,” Pantojan says. “It’s still almost impossible to tabulate just how deep those crimes go and how many innocent people ended up in jail because of him.”
Other cities, too, have struggled with institutional corruption. With Murder in Canaryville (Chicago Review, Jan. 2021), Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen “paints a vivid picture of underworld Chicago,” PW’s starred review said, “while detailing one man’s quest to close a cold case.” Forty years after the 1976 murder of a white Irish teenager, John Hughes, Det. James Sherlock of the Chicago PD decided to take on the case; its records, he found, fit in a single manila envelope.
“Detective notes and progress reports that typically come with any case, especially a homicide investigation, were missing,” Coen says. “Sherlock was able to look at the material and see that somebody wanted this thing to never come to light.”
Like other authors and editors PW spoke with, Coen believes books about police corruption have particular resonance now. “This story did not just come out of left field,” Coen says. “These police departments have a historical pattern of corruption and ingrained channels where injustice can occur because of either lack of oversight, a lack of commitment to change, or a lack of leadership wanting to do the work to change it.”
Culture of fear
There’s a counterpart to abuses inflicted by those with power: the vulnerability of those they prey upon. Elon Green explores this theme in Last Call (Celadon, Mar. 2021), which focuses on the victims of a serial killer who targeted closeted, middle-aged gay men. Facing both violence and the “societal demands of the period,” Green says, the men lived in fear of exposure—two of the victims were married to women. (See “The Lives They Lived” for a q&a with Green.)
Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro, in The Good Girls (Grove, Feb. 2021), also comments on how violence against particular groups contributes to a culture of persistent fear. In 2014, two teenage girls were killed in Katra Sadatganj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The next year, Faleiro traveled to the rural village to report on their deaths, expecting the case to have been solved. Instead, she spent years traveling the country to learn what really happened to the girls.
Faleiro attributes the lack of closure regarding their deaths to a pervasive issue in the Indian judicial system. “When women fall victim to violence it’s basically washed away as dowry death, as patriarchy, and as backwardness,” she says. “Violence against women is such a cultural habit that not only is it perpetuated, but it isn’t investigated.” Faleiro says women have to remain ever-vigilant to protect themselves, and cites her experience growing up in New Delhi: “It’s such a big part of one’s life, fearing men. It’s something that you think about all the time. It determines what you are going to wear, where you are going to go, and who is going to be around you.”
In addition to books that highlight how justice can fail those it’s meant to protect, the coming months also bring titles centered on how wealth can shield those who commit crimes.
On October 27, Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes including sex trafficking and racketeering, which he perpetrated under the guise of running the personal development and multilevel marketing company Nxivm. Journalist Sarah Berman, in Don’t Call It a Cult (Steerforth, Apr. 2021), details the group’s history of abuses, such as programming women under its sway to view Raniere as the “ultimate genetic partner,” Berman says.
Though Raniere claimed to be a renunciate, his pockets ran deep thanks to the people in his inner circle, including Pamela Cafritz, the daughter of Washington socialites, and Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman. His benefactors “contributed to a number of political campaigns, both Democrat and Republican,” Berman says. “They had ins in the justice system and in the DA’s office, and that created this force field of protection that served him quite well.”
In Guilty Admissions (Twelve, Mar. 2021), former Variety reporter Nicole LaPorte looks at another example of the abuse of privilege, the so-called Varsity Blues scandal. College counselor Rick Singer—“a scrappy former basketball coach and world-class hustler,” LaPorte says—helped wealthy parents, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, get their children into top-tier universities in exchange for payments he positioned as donations.
LaPorte attributes public fascination with the scandal to its exposition of an uncomfortable truth. “It’s a story about the wealthy getting what they want because they have money,” she says.“This case became such a media sensation because it’s antithetical to what this country supposedly stands for.”
Guilty Admissions and books like it shed light on the ways the powerful hang onto their power. “The criminal justice system is really only as good as the people who are holding the controls of it,” Murder in Canaryville author Coen says. “And there are lots of different ways to manipulate it.”
Zoë Ettinger is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Independent, Insider, and elsewhere.
Below, more on True Crime books.
The Lives They Lived: PW Talks with Elon Green
Green’s ‘Last Call’ remembers the victims of a 1990s serial killer.
Family Ties: PW Talks with Elle Johnson
In ‘The Officer’s Daughter,’ Johnson recounts her memories of her cousin’s murder and how it changed her and her family.