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Murder: The Prosecutor's Tale

Prosecutors who write books after high-profile cases offer insider details.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

I just read Juan Martinez’ new book, Conviction, about his prosecution of Jodi Arias. She brutally murdered her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in 2008, directly after their sexual encounter. Most true crime buffs will recall how the case was replayed nightly on HLN. At the center was a highly manipulative woman. Martinez lays out his case against her, step by careful step.

As a writer, I find books by prosecutors about complex cases to be tremendously informative. They illustrate how the legal system works from their point of view, and explain how and why they made key decisions (some of which did not work).

Martinez had strong evidence that caught Arias in a lie when she denied involvement. He thought he was safe. Then she claimed she had indeed killed Travis, but it was in self-defense. Martinez knew he had to find a stronger platform, so he revisited every document. He describes the painstaking work and his moment of illumination from a single statement in the file.

He could have easily missed it. He had other cases with their own pressures, and he might have overlooked that one item that most clearly proved homicidal premeditation. It's a good example of how precarious the process can be.

But having a good case wasn't enough. He also needed a good strategy. “Choosing when to present a piece of evidence to a jury," Martinez writes, “is almost more important than the evidence itself, as the timing can affect the way the jury may treat it.”

He describes the delicate art of cross-examination. He'd observed that when Arias was questioned in a linear manner, she could easily craft her responses. Thus, he kept her off balance. He walked a “fine line,” but he got her to undermine her victim approach and to admit to a pattern of lies.

From there, he had to hope that the jury would accept his case reconstruction as more credible than that offered by Arias’ defense team. The book’s title gives it away, of course. She was convicted. But it was a painstaking process.

Among the earliest prosecutor accounts that I read was Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about Charles Manson and his killer cult. They orchestrated the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969. The trick for Bugliosi was to convict Manson as the mastermind. He had to contend with the supernatural aura that pervaded the trial, as Manson gave him the ‘evil eye.’ Bugliosi’s account reveals the pitfalls of high-profile, multi-defendant cases.

I have also used Terry Sullivan’s book, Killer Clown, in my forensic psychology course. Sullivan prosecuted John Wayne Gacy. He provides a step-by step analysis of how the case began, how the various teams coordinated their efforts, and what happened in court. His inclusion of the extensive psychiatric testimony worked for my purpose, but this case analysis would be as useful in a forensic art or anthropology course.

Some reader reviews describe these books as tedious, and that’s because the authors don’t take shortcuts. They’re not meant to be fast-paced, suspenseful narratives; instead, they show behind-the-scenes issues and decisions. For writers (and anyone interested in the legal process), the books are invaluable.

Dennis Brooks compares his book, Too Pretty to Live: The Catfishing Murders of East Tennessee, to Bugliosi’s, in that the two people most responsible for the double homicide did not perpetrate it. Jennelle Potter and her mother convinced Jennelle’s father and boyfriend to commit the deed after a Facebook feud. The prosecutor relied on forensic linguistics to demonstrate the bizarre catfishing scheme.

In my neck of the woods, John Morganelli wrote The D-Day Bank Massacre about a triple homicide that Martin Appel choreographed in a bank in Bath, Pennsylvania. “It would appear that the Appel case should have been an easy one for the prosecution,” he writes. “After all, Appel robbed a bank, murdered three people in cold blood, seriously wounded two others, and did so in full view of a number of witnesses who survived to tell about it. Moreover, Appel had confessed on videotape and explained in detail how he planned the crime and executed it.”

Appel, who defended himself, agreed that he deserved death and wanted it expedited. Then he manipulated the state’s conflicted political system to thwart his execution. He received three life sentences.

George Dekle, the prosecutor for the murder that Ted Bundy committed in 1978, published The Last Murder in 2012. "That's where I learned to be a lawyer — prosecuting that case," Dekle said in an interview. “For those two years, all I did was eat, sleep, investigate, then eat, sleep, prepare, and then eat, sleep and litigate."

The victim was Kimberly Leach, a 12-year-old girl who disappeared from her school in the middle of the day. Bundy was soon arrested and identified as a fugitive wanted in several states. Suspected in Leach’s kidnapping, he refused to discuss her. Dekle describes his impressions of Bundy and what it was like to build his case against such a slippery, arrogant and self-defeating defendant. Bundy was eventually convicted of this murder, receiving a death sentence. Dekle witnessed his execution.

In some cases that inspired books, the prosecutor lost. In Imperfect Justice, Jeff Ashton offered his analysis of the failed 2011 Casey Anthony prosecution. (Yes, her attorney Jose Baez has his own “inside story,” but I’m talking about prosecutors here.) From the team’s point of view, you learn how specific experts were selected, how mistakes were made, and how the daily twists of this courtroom drama played out.

Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark both published books about their experiences during their unsuccessful prosecution of O. J. Simpson for double homicide. Despite being on the same team, their perspectives are quite different. (Thus, writers can also glimpse the influence of diverse personalities building the same case.)

This list of prosecutor books is not exhaustive. My intent is simply to urge writers and true crime readers with an interest in the legal process to read such books for what they are: careful renderings of strategy in cases with multiple complications.