Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
I had to think about this book for a while before reviewing it. I’ve long been a fan of true crime, especially those famous crimes from before forensic science was even a glimmer in someone’s eye. I enjoy reading about the nuts and bolts of police “investigations” that allowed journalists and regular citizens to tromp through a gruesome crime scene before the bodies were even removed (Ratcliffe Highway Murder), trying to find an ax murderer (Midnight Assassin) in mid nineteenth century Dallas using bloodhounds and apparently not even making sketches of the murder scenes, and in the most famous example of police malfeasance letting Jack the Ripper get away because he had friends in high places (They All Love Jack). In the case of Little Shoes the police took the tried and true tactic of going after the easiest mark rather than trying to find the actual killer. This book unsettled me, and I think it was this more personal aspect that got to me. I wasn’t reading so much about sketches and tromping through scenes (though there was some of that), but about a man being hung because he was the most expedient suspect, and about three murdered little girls whose killer was never caught (in all probability).
There is a sub-genre of true crime books about people who confess to a famous, or infamous, crime on behalf of a relative. One author has written several books about what a murdering sumbitch his dad was, claiming he was the Black Dahlia killer, among other crimes. The author of Little Shoes, Pamela Everett, is a lawyer who specializes in wrongful convictions. When she discovered she had great aunts who had been murdered at the ages of seven and eight she looked into it and was drawn into an investigation when she immediately noticed some things in the investigation seemed off.
“Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions, usually resulting from questionable interrogations. The continuum spans from the seemingly benign practice of the interrogator telling the story and the suspect merely agreeing just to make the process end, as Dyer may have done to avoid being taken back to the Inglewood mob, to the more worrisome and perfectly legal practice of police lying to suspects about evidence they have against them, and finally to the extreme of physical and psychological abuse.”
Albert Dyer confessed several times, answering “Yes, sir” repeatedly as the police told him what he had done. The man’s IQ was so low he was barely functional in society, which the prosecution never refuted, and which was completely overlooked by a populous eager to punish. As well, he was pointed out by several witnesses, in a line-up consisting of Dyer and….no one else.
“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”
I think the word I would have used is scapegoat, not suspect.
It’s easy to look back at the nascent years of police procedures becoming more professional, aided by our improved science and people better understanding the rule of law, and boast about how far we’ve come in finding justice in this country. But pay attention to how many cases are still being overturned for doing the same kind of stuff these early century gumshoes were doing, and think about how many cases never get a second look. Probably the best thing that came out of this case was the changes in sexual predator laws and investigative procedures.
Author Pamela Everett lays out her case for reasonable doubt in the trial, covering each area of weakness in the prosecution’s case and explaining how the black humor of the community was too ready to convict whoever could be brought quickly to trial. The murders occurred in June of 1937, and Dyer was hung buy the neck until dead in September of 1938. Everett does mention some other possible suspects but doesn’t go into a lot of detail, as well she shouldn’t, because the book is about Dyer’s probable innocence more than trying to prove who really did it.
It’s a tautly written book with, thankfully, no pictures of the crime scene. The author obviously feels sympathy for Dyer, and a lot of angst about the murdered girls and how it affected her family for generations. I would recommend it if you’re interested in early twentieth century crime investigation, on the cusp of policing becoming a much more professional endeavor. As well, it’s a good primer on how a prosecution can make a trial go his way, for whatever reason. But if you’re like me, you might have a problem with the very personal sense of injustice that was done.