Wednesday, June 11, 2008

No Easy Answers

Public expectation was that a filmed interview with convicted killer Paul Bernardo would be restricted in attempts to prevent the video from being leaked online.

Instead, the judge ruled that the tapes could be released to the public. Hours after the landmark ruling, excerpts as much as ten minutes long (the entire interview is approximately half an hour) have already appeared on YouTube and the full interview can be watched on, one of Canada's national news sites.

The purpose of the interview was to question Bernardo about Elizabeth Bain, who disappeared in June 1990. Despite the arrest and conviction of Robert Baltovich - Bain's boyfriend - he has since been granted a new trial and suspicions linger that Bernardo was actually responsible, although in the past he has not confessed to Bain's murder.

Setting aside the reason for the interview, this controversial ruling is sure to stir up strong feelings amongst Canadians who remember the abduction of Kristen French, and the discovery of Leslie Mahaffy's body, dismembered and encased in concrete and submerged in Lake Gibson. Although I was twenty at the time, all young women were encouraged to be cautious, not to be out too late at night, not to be alone. Vigilant investigators followed up on every reported lead in their attempts to catch the killers of French and Mahaffy - I remember the day they came to my house. It was an experience that proved the extent of the impact of these abductions and murders, because friends pointed fingers at friends. It taught me something about how quickly trust erodes in the face of fear.

Undoubtedly, there is a lingering public fascination with Bernardo, and his ex-wife Karla Homolka, who participated in the crimes. Homolka cut a deal and testified against Bernardo, and her release from prison turned her into a pseudo-celebrity, with the media keeping tabs on her activities and reporting them to the nation. She has since given birth to a boy, remarried and left the country.

The public curiosity is understandable. When we discover the beautiful, young couple living next door have been responsible for three murders - including the murder of Homolka's own sister - and multiple sexual assaults, there are two typical reactions. One is to plug our ears and pretend it didn't happen, and the other is to try to understand why this happened. I can only say that I feel conflicted over the decision to release this video to the public, for a number of reasons. After checking the records, Baltovich has already been found not guilty at his second trial, earlier this year, but there will be a lingering doubt that the suspicions centered on Bernardo contaminated public opinion and provided reasonable doubt without actually offering any concrete answers.

There will always be the question of whether or not public interest in killers contributes to more violence.

Now I will be famous.

Those were the words of the teenager responsible for eight murders in a mall shooting spree in Omaha last December. Public fascination with killers - particularly serial killers - elevates them to that pseudo-celebrity status Homolka experienced upon her release, and send the wrong message to fragile minds, those on the verge of committing their own crimes who believe they'll gain a type of immortality through the fame that comes from their crimes.

Of course, we haven't even touched on how it must be for the families of the victims, who deal with the ongoing discussions of these crimes and the people responsible. This blog post may make me guilty of contributing to that as well.

We crime fiction writers are often accused of drawing inspiration from true cases purely for entertainment and personal profit. I disagree. There may be some who have those motivations, but I prefer using the forum of fiction to address issues so that they aren't clouded by the "situational ethics" factor - that responses aren't based on individuals but on proper policy.

Right or wrong, the Bernardo tape is out there for public consumption. Will you watch it? Do you think it was the right choice?


Randy Johnson said...

I won't ever watch the interview. I don't have a fascination with real crimes and haven't read very many true crime books. The only one that's ever stuck in my mind is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
I read that in my senior year at high school as an English assignment and, upon seeing me with it, my sociology teacher asked me to give a talk in class for extra credit.
I suppose it would be considered censorship to not allow the Bernardo interview to be seen. But I reluctantly conclude that maybe everybody shouldn't be allowed to see it. The "Now I'll be famous" line strikes home.
All that said, I don't see how you could stop the young from seeing it. So I really don't know what the answer should be.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I hear you Randy, there's no easy answers on this one. I guess my question is, why release it at all? I mean, how many hundreds of thousands of interviews are there with suspects and people under arrest or in prison every day across the continent, and how many of those get aired? The only reason this was put out there was because of Bernardo's infamy, and so I don't think I really see it as being about censorship.

In fact, as I recall, in Canada, the entire original trial of Bernardo was under a media lockdown and we got more news about what was happening from American news stations because they didn't have the same restrictions on them as Canadian journalists.

John McFetridge said...

Everything should be released - every interview, every piece of evidence should be available to the public.

Maybe not till after the trial, but really, we have to start acting like adults and stop looking to judges and the government to be mommy and daddy protecting us.

At least when it comes to real things.

Fiction is the tougher issue. I find too often crime fiction writers say the same things over and over. We almost never touch on policy. We describe the same scenes of murder and violence over and over as if each and every book needs to make exactly the same points and we almost never get past the first step of outrage. Do we really need another book that tells us serial killers are bad? That child abuse is awful?

Every writer claims the best of intentions, the high road, but do we really always take it?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Tough questions John, and no easy answers.

And I do think what bugs me about this particular video is, it isn't standard practice to release police interviews, so why this one?

Policy is the undercurrent of what you and I write, I think. I see it as impossible to write crime fiction (police procedurals) that don't touch on the politics and bureaucracy. The question is the extent to which that's done, and how effective it is, but absolutely, we all get serial killers are bad and nobody needs to be sold on that.

Of course, now the trend is selling them as just misunderstood...

John McFetridge said...

Yes, I'd like to know what really happened with this video. The newspaper lawyers always ask that this stuff be made public and usually the judges say no. This time the judge said yes. Maybe it was because this interview was not evidence in a case?

Unfortunately, I think if we want to write about policy or effects of crimes or even deeper causes, it'll have to be in "literary" fiction. Right now the crime fiction world is so tightly formulaic that the crime itself and the direct investigation needs to be too much of the focus.

Canadian crime writer JD Carpenter has written three police procedurals but his new book is called literary fiction and features one of the minor characters from the procedurals, but no crimes.

I thought the Rebus book that featured the immigration issue as one of the sub-plots was terrific and could have stood on its own as a novel without the crime fiction - they were almost two seperate stories.

It's coming, just slowly.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I thought FC was excellent as well John. One can always hope for change. Look at The Wire. It looks at the blame at all levels of society.

One can always hope...