The local weirdo

Corrupt police officer

Another important strand of The Grave Digger’s Boy (due out in about three weeks) is what happens when the police imprison the wrong person.

Not only is justice left undone but also a new injustice compounds the original evil.

The detective who acts on unerringly correct gut feeling is a standard trope in crime fiction. They’re plagued by bureaucrats and do-gooders who insist on the following of due process, or let creeps walk free for the trivial reason that there’s no real evidence.

In extreme examples, they bend or break the law to achieve justice – a fascist fantasy, essentially, in the Death Wish or Dirty Harry school.

I’m sure that in real life, police officers who falsify evidence or bend the rules often think they’re doing the right thing. But sometimes, it’s just about ticking a box, getting promoted, or fame.

That’s what I wanted to explore in The Grave Digger’s Boy with reference to some real life cases.

Though my book is primarily set in Devon, one important touchstone, for example, is the case of the New York City detective Louis Scarcella.

During the crack boom of the 1980s and 90s, Scarcella planted evidence, coached witnesses and forged statements to convict people for crimes they didn’t commit with the primary aim of advancing his career. In particular, he convinced one woman, a drug addict, to give false testimony in case after case.

When the truth emerged recently, every conviction he had achieved was thrown into doubt. At the time of writing, fourteen people have had their convictions overturned and about another 60 are still under review.

There’s a fantastic account from the perspective of one of the men Scarcella framed, Derrick Hamilton, in this 2016 article by Jennifer Gonnerman from the New Yorker:

The detective, Louis Scarcella, then thirty-nine, reminded Hamilton of the actor Joe Pesci, as he swaggered about the room, brandishing a cigar. But what Hamilton remembered most clearly, he says, is that Scarcella told him that “he didn’t care whether I did it or not, because I didn’t serve enough time for my previous case, and I would be going back to jail.”

Another story I find awfully fascinating is that of Colin Stagg – the ‘local weirdo’ who was the obvious, easy suspect in the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992.

Based, we now know, on little more than guesswork, flawed psychological profiling and prejudice, the police tried and failed to convict him. They used desperate measures, including getting an undercover police officer to flirt with him, encouraging him to confess to the murder and give details under the pretence that she found it arousing.

Even after the conviction collapsed, so convinced were police they’d had their man that they failed to relaunch a proper investigation. That left the actual murderer, Robert Napper, free to continue offending for more than a year when he was imprisoned for a different offence, and Stagg spent a decade being treated by the press as a murderer who had ‘got away with it’. His name was only cleared when Napper was convicted in 2004.

There are lots of instances of the police latching on to ‘local weirdos’ – Stefan Kiszko, Christopher Jefferies and Barry George (Bulsara) are other notable examples – and they’re depressing for various reasons.

First, they reveal how little tolerance our society has for people who are developmentally challenged, mentally ill or just a bit different.

How many of us can say honestly that when we saw Christopher Jefferies on TV during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates we doubted his guilt? The police seemed sure; there was something unnerving about his manner; and the story seemed to tie up so neatly.

But he didn’t do it. He was just a man who fit our collective idea of what a murderer might look like, and who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Secondly, then, what makes these stories worrying is the same thread Alfred Hitchcock so often pulled upon – how many innocent people are in prison right now?

And what must it be like to be The Wrong Man?

If they really wanted to, could the police make you look and sound like the kind of misfit who might murder someone? A particular hazard for crime writers, I suppose: “He obsessively read about murder, closely followed police investigations and even kept notebooks with the details of how people were killed…”

Things are further complicated by people like Levi Bellfield. He was convicted for the murders of three young women, including Milly Dowler, between 2002 and 2004.

Bellfield is thought to have murdered and abducted many more victims from around 1980 which is why when he confessed to the 1996 killings of Lin and Megan Russell, police took it seriously.

If he was found to have committed that crime it would have meant that Michael Stone, imprisoned since 1998, was innocent.

But investigators concluded that Bellfield couldn’t have done it and that his motive for confessing was probably to cause pain to the families of the victims.

What The Grave Digger’s Boy explores is the difficulty of ever really feeling sure that anyone is innocent or guilty. It also shows how quickly and easily we turn what we know into a narrative, filling in any gaps with assumptions and imagined details.

Humans are programmed to discern patterns and narratives. Unfortunately, sometimes, the conclusions we draw mean that innocent people go to prison while the guilty walk free.

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