Lit Crit

A Statistician’s Imprecise Analysis of True Crime

June 15, 2011

Multiple Pages
A Statistician’s Imprecise Analysis of True Crime

Bill James, the baseball statistics analyst who has been one of the most revolutionary influences upon American sport and thought over the last generation, has now published a non-baseball book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, which grows out of his decades-long fascination with true-crime books.

James summarizes scores of notorious killings from Lizzie Borden through JonBenét Ramsey. Did Bruno Hauptmann really kidnap Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932? James says the evidence of his guilt is overwhelming. What about Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose controversial 1954 murder trial inspired The Fugitive? Guilty, although not as charged; James figures he hired a hit man to kill his wife. What about O. J.? Oh, c’mon.…

“If you assume there are always serial killers around, then otherwise purposeless murders can be explained—or, perhaps, explained away.”

How about Albert DeSalvo, a mental patient who claimed to be the Boston Strangler as part of a complicated strategy his ambitious attorney F. Lee Bailey devised? James doesn’t believe the rapist was the killer, but then he figures that there wasn’t a Boston Strangler. Instead, he speculates there were multiple serial killers on the loose. The only original research that James, Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Boston Red Sox since 2002, has done is ride the “T” subway and notice that the stranglings were convenient to transit stops, while DeSalvo’s claim to have driven to all his murders founders on the Boston parking shortage.

James emphasizes that the police traditionally rejected the very idea of a random killer. Not until the immense outcry over Ted Bundy, who murdered at least 30 pretty coeds in the 1970s, did police wisdom finally come around to the public’s view that there were sometimes devils on the prowl. Like innumerate baseball managers who assumed the sacrifice bunt was a smarter strategy than swinging for the fences like fans wanted, cops had always known that victims knew their killers.

Indeed, some unsolved historic murders might be attributable to unrecognized serial killers. Maybe there were fewer—but far more brutal—killers than authorities had imagined. For example, Popular Crime upholds the innocence of the Massachusetts spinster who was accused (and acquitted) in 1892 of the charge that “Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother forty whacks.” But no alternative suspect was ever charged. If you assume there are always serial killers around, then otherwise purposeless murders can be explained—or, perhaps, explained away.

On the other hand, James also suspects that the upheavals of the 1960s liberated demonic energies. In particular, he argues that the liberal Supreme Court’s procedural decisions shackled cops and, worse, tilted the rules toward freeing crooks from prison too quickly. He says when he taught English to Kansas prisoners in the 1970s, one of his students, a murderer serving a life sentence, was released after only two years.

James’s biggest contribution has been to bring an independent mind to reinterpreting how America has changed and why. But are extraordinary man-bites-dog crime stories the ideal subject matter for Bill James, analyzer of averages? His baseball detective work—defending a guilty Pete Rose against allegations of betting on ballgames while James ignored the steroids epidemic—isn’t encouraging. 

James is an outstanding arguer, but not a vivid narrator. Nor is James a systematic or particularly precise thinker, which allows lawyers to complain that he criticizes them but doesn’t offer an alternative. Paradoxically, that’s why James’s rambling, discursive, miscellaneous essays on baseball statistics proved more valuable a generation ago than the premature attempts of more scientifically ambitious number-crunchers such as Pete Palmer.

Nor does James use what few reliable crime statistics are available. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published official homicide numbers since 1976, but they’re dull and depressing. Although blacks commit the majority of murders, the crime stories that sell books are overwhelmingly about whites killing whites. James claims that the handsome, articulate Bundy (who attended the 1968 Republican convention as a Nelson Rockefeller supporter) was personally responsible for the emergence of true-crime books as a reliable genre for publishers.

Thus, James devotes nine pages to the famous Zodiac Killer, a white man who murdered five whites in Northern California in the late 60s. Like most, James also ignores the forgotten Zebra Killers, Black Muslim racial terrorists who subsequently murdered at least fifteen whites in San Francisco from 1973-4.

James defends the true-crime genre by claiming that a gentleman’s agreement among press barons to act more respectable after the Lindbergh kidnapping’s tabloid excesses had stifled crime reporting. By 1963, “This led gradually to a criminal justice system that didn’t take serious crime seriously enough, and this contributed to an explosion in the crime rate.”

Popular Crime is a read-250-books-and-write-another-one effort. Although James has a proven record of pattern-recognition ability and solid sense, his book falls short on both counts.


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