Sunday, June 24, 2012


by Earl Staggs

My wife and I watch a number of true crime shows on TV.  We have to.  Otherwise, we’d be forced to  watch dramas in which actors are chosen not for their talent but for the solidity of their abs. Or watch reality shows about people who repossess cars or fight over the contents of foreclosed storage units.  I thought about auditioning for one of those shows until I read the requirements.  You have to weigh more than 300 pounds and have at least 7 tattoos, one of which must cover 80% of one arm. And that’s only for the women.  Requirements for men are even tougher.

So we record Dateline, 48 Hours, American Justice and other true crime documentaries. Recording them allows us to watch them at our convenience and fast forward through promos for reality shows about repossessing cars and fighting over storage unit contents. 

True crime shows recreate real crimes committed by real people who are pursued by real investigators.  They say truth is stranger than fiction. In many cases, that’s true.  What is also true is that many of the cases we see are more ingenius and harder to solve than anything dreamed up by fiction writers. 

A recent case involved a woman initially hailed as a hero because she saved her own life and the lives of her three children one dark night by killing a home invader who beat and nearly strangled her to death.  When police and EMT’s arrived, the poor woman was disheveled from fighting with her attacker and had marks on her throat from his attempt to strangle her. The invader turned out to be a mentally challenged young man well known to the family.  In the young man’s car, investigators found a journal in which he detailed being hired by the woman’s ex-husband to commit the murder.  Open and shut, right? No. Investigators felt something wasn’t right.   

The scenario of the woman’s scuffle with and eventual shooting of her attacker didn’t ring true. They also suspected someone had manipulated the young man into writing the journal.  It took years for the truth to come out, but the woman was eventually indicted and convicted of first degree murder.  

She made a fatal mistake one day. She demanded the police arrest the man she’d divorced and charge him with conspiracy to commit murder.  After all, she said, the journal clearly revealed he was behind the attempt on her life.  Aha!  The police had never revealed the existence of the journal or what was in it. The only person who could have known about it was the person who cleverly coerced the intellectually diminished young man to write it. That, along with other circumstantial evidence, convinced a jury that the fiendish and diabolical woman had carefully orchestrated the entire event, including inflicting strangulation marks on her own neck, to frame her ex-husband.  Her sentence was life without the possibility of parole. 

I could never have dreamed up such a plot. That doesn’t mean I won’t fictionalize the events of that case, change names, places, dates, and other details, and come up with a story of my own.  

You could do the same, but don’t.  I’ll sue.


Morgan Mandel said...

True crime is great fodder for constructing plots. The trick is to use some but not all of the material in a circumstance. Wouldn't want to get sued!

Earl Staggs said...

You're right about that, Morgan. I've had several good ideas I decided not to write. There was no way I could disguise the true story it came from.