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Inspecting A History Of Infamy In 'Popular Crime'

May 14, 2011 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Bill James lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife and three children.

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Bill James is perhaps best known for creating a system of statistics that changed the way baseball as seen, measured and played. Today, he is a senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox, but his most recent work focuses on another, very different, favorite pastime of his: crime stories.

In his latest book, Popular Crime, James presents his thoughts on some of our culture's most infamous crime stories. James tells NPR's Scott Simon that while he isn't an official expert, he has other qualifications for writing a book about crime.

"It occurs to me that reading as many crime books as I have read over the course of 50 years does create a body of knowledge that would justify writing a book," James says.

The Boston Strangler

Among the many homicides and disappearances in James' book is a series of murders committed in Boston in the early 1960s. The Boston Strangler murdered 13 women before supposedly being caught.

Albert DeSalvo confessed to the killings, which inspired a 1968 film staring Tony Curtis, but his confession wasn't backed by any evidence. James says it's very improbable that DeSalvo actually murdered those women and cites the testimony of DeSalvo's psychiatrists which deemed him delusional and incompetent to stand trial. So how does he explain DeSalvo's confession?

"There are, I believe, many more false confessions to murders than true confessions," James says. "What happens in too many cases is the police know how to get somebody to confess to something. They know how to make that happen, and they will make that happen. And they get a sort of half confession which the prosecutor describes relentlessly as a confession when in reality it was something like, 'Yeah, I guess she must be dead by now.'"

'The Fugitive'

And then there are those cases that seem to be determined more by public perception than what happens inside any police station or courtroom. In 1954, the case of a pregnant woman who was murdered in her Cleveland home attracted so much media attention that it would eventually inspire a film and TV series, The Fugitive.

Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted of the murder that same year, only to be acquitted in 1966. That acquittal helped establish the idea that excessive press coverage could affect a trial's outcome.

"The Supreme Court used the Sheppard case to say that the courts had a responsibility to make the case stand free of flying journalistic debris," James says. "It's extremely damaging to a fair trial to have people reaching judgment about the case in the newspapers and on the radio before the facts are heard in a case."

James says the problem of highly publicized trials hasn't gotten much better since the 1966 Supreme Court decision.

The 'Ugh' Factor

Beyond the media conversation, James believes there are larger questions about how different parts of society react to horrific crimes. In his book, James writes, "If you go to a party populated by the NPR crowd and you start talking about JonBenet Ramsey, people will look at you as if you had forgotten your pants."

He cites the disdain some people have for crime stories as potentially harmful to the justice system because of how it prevents informed scrutiny.

"How reliable is the justice system? Can we count on justice being done? What do we do with prisoners?" James asks. "It causes us to pull up short of looking at questions we should look at and asking questions we should ask.

James says the distaste many people have for issues related to crime and punishment prohibits a meaningful public debate about it.

The problem, he says, is that "we can't get past the 'ugh' factor."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
By Bill James
Hardcover, 496 pages
Scribner
List Price: $30
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