Perfect towns, imperfect crimes

On Friday, March 3, Richard Allen Jackson — confessed murderer of Karen Styles — quietly and judiciously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder before Judge James Downs of Franklin. In effect, that allowed him to escape either a mandatory life sentence or, perhaps, the death penalty. Given credit for the last five years he served on death row and in county prison, Jackson could possibly be released by the year 2020 — perhaps somewhere close to [what would have been] Karen’s 48th birthday. Next week, John and Patsy Ramsey, the parents of JonBenet Ramsey — the 6-year old child-beauty-pageant winner from Boulder, Colo., who was murdered on Christmas night, 1996 — will begin making the talk-show rounds in anticipation of their just-published book on what they think happened that fateful night.

Both murders have introduced profound and disturbing disequilibriums into two seemingly perfect towns, Asheville and Boulder. Additionally, both Karen Styles and JonBenet Ramsey have powerful symbolic presences in their communities, which mirror a collective anxiety about the very possibility of justice — let alone its realization — in contemporary society. The intertwining of the two stories tells us a great deal about the irrelevance of actual guilt and innocence in today’s criminal-justice system, and about the impact of that on society as a whole.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Interviewed in the Asheville Citizen-Times the day after the decision was announced, ordinary citizens such as Anita Stewart, Bob Tucker, Lynn Jackson, David Moore and Sue Hagedorn exhibited that same concern over present-day justice. Hagedorn and Stewart expressed a disturbing sadness over the decision, saying that “justice had not been served.” David Moore — analytical as well as eloquent — wondered why, if “they had a pretty solid case,” such a plea bargain could be reached. “It just seems as though this is an unfair decision,” he lamented, “but I guess that’s just how our criminal-justice system works in some cases.” While the sadness and regret felt by everyone appropriately extended primarily to Katheryn and Thad Styles (Karen’s parents), it also reflected a general grieving over the outcome of the whole process of justice here in Western North Carolina.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The cases of Karen Styles and JonBenet Ramsey fall into a category known as “true crimes,” because of their concordance with and incorporations of the values of their communities. In other words, they represent well-known members of each town and seem such a violation of — even an outrage against — the ordinary rituals and behaviors of well-ordered, humane and civilized societies. In fact, both Asheville and Boulder pride themselves on their All-American, family-oriented, “best-rated places” images. While Asheville and Buncombe County average perhaps five murders a year, still below national FBI norms, JonBenet’s was the only murder in Boulder in 1996. Yet most murders are solved, and the criminals identified and apprehended, tried, convicted and packed off for lengthy prison sentences; some end up awaiting death. The primitive psychological allure of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” has been satisfied by a humane and civilized system of criminal justice that allows for “truth” — i.e., a sense of predictability in terms of what happens in such cases, to be verified and validated. Yet the “true crimes” of Karen Styles and JonBenet Ramsey have produced a baleful, opposite result.

In the past, the solution of a “true crime,” especially one involving murder, frequently has brought a natural closure to the process of justice for criminals, and of solace for their victims’ families. Today, unlike the “mysteries” of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series or of “whodunit” ’50s writers such as Mickey Spillane, the true drama takes place in a courtroom, a concept well understood by John Grisham. Until a jury announces its verdict — regardless of bias, of the influence of “dream teams” of defense lawyers and of “mean teams” of prosecutors, or of legal technicalities and their aftermath — there is no closure, no “truth,” no justice. Actual guilt and innocence — and even the resultant sentences or freedom — become secondary, as the focus of dramatic inquiry and attention shifts from the defendant/criminal onto the prosecutors, and police involved. A great deal of the frustration over the murders of Karen Styles and JonBenet Ramsey lies in the fact that we do not have that verdict of a final, conclusive, revealing jury trial — or any sort of satisfactory closure to the process.

Sherlock Holmes probably could have solved the murders of Nicole Simpson, Ron Goldman, JonBenet Ramsey and Karen Styles in a few paragraphs of fifth-grade deductions. “A cut hand, no alibi, matching blood spots in the van, a howling dog, past physical abuse, and one-in-a-billion DNA evidence: Well, now, O.J., try on these blood-soaked gloves (not the dried and shrunken ones) and expensive shoes, and we’ll see.” Or “No footprints in the snow, a phony kidnapping, a suspect ransom note, no sign of forced entry: Let’s let everybody involved take a lie-detector test to see where you were that night.” Or “The duct tape, a purchased rifle, receipts for both from K-Mart, shell casings, a semen sample: Why don’t you just tell us what happened at Bent Creek?”

Each of the cases involves less-than-mysterious murders which — because they were stalled, ineptly investigated and prosecuted, even sabotaged by the internal politics of police departments and district attorneys’ offices — have become unique to and representative of our time. O. J. Simpson’s case eventually ended in a jury trial that rent the fabric of Los Angeles society, forever poisoning the departments involved. In the aftermath, everyone involved lined up to sell their souls to the tabloids, [book] publishers and the media. All three cases released a disquietude, even a sense of betrayal, that still permeates our expectations of justice in America today.

Almost by its very nature, the strongest evidence in many murder cases frequently is also its weakest. Thus, questions about DNA in the Simpson case, about the ransom note in the JonBenet Ramsey case, and about the confession of Richard Jackson in the Styles case bring up relevant — certainly legitimate — legal concerns about prosecution. For example, what bearing would the “evidence problems” of the Styles case ultimately have on presumptions of innocence or guilt, on the technicalities of the law, on the weaker forensic evidence of ballistics or hair and blood, or even on the appeals process? Who knows? Yet there was one way to find out. Prosecute and bring the case to still another trial. In the past, District Attorney Ron Moore’s office has prosecuted similar murder cases with “evidence problems.” In a case this winter, a defendant received a death sentence in a 20-year-old double murder with no murder weapon, no fingerprints and no blood matches. “Smoking guns,” confessions, indisputable forensic evidence, and witnesses frequently do not abound in murder cases. “Evidence problems” do.

What would have been the outcome in the Karen Styles case with a jury trial? Who knows? Regardless of the verdict, the full drama would have been played out in public, and the results would have brought a natural closure, whether satisfying or not, to the entire process of criminal justice here in Asheville and Western North Carolina. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s well-known election truism, when it comes to such cases as that of Karen Styles, it’s the process, stupid — the process.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Bob Christy, the Buncombe County clerk of court, expressed his befuddlement with the plea bargain. “I don’t know what happened,” he explained. “I just didn’t want to even be there [to watch the guilty plea]. I just didn’t want to see it.” District Attorney Ron Moore seemed equally surprised by his own decision, explaining to himself and to the public that, “The thought of taking a plea in this case never entered my mind until about a week before it happened — not once in five years.” Yet any plea bargain depends on a defendant’s cooperation and confession — not to mention a few necessary legal procedures, notifications and niceties — and one week seems unusually truncated for such an important decision. Moore maintained that he consulted with Katheryn and Thad Styles on Wednesday, a scant 48 hours or so before the court-approved bargain went down, and that they were not pleased with the deal. Yet the Styles’ dissatisfaction and pain apparently did not factor into or delay the Friday deadline. Even a sympathetic and compassionate judge of their choosing did little to ease the hurt for the badly shaken Styles, who afterward left town.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Lately, it seems that Moore’s office, despite disclaimers, avoids trials — relying instead on plea bargaining for counted-on convictions. For example, within the same week that Moore thought of taking a plea in the Styles case, he also “bargained” with James Voth — who killed Crystal Shuford, his girlfriend’s daughter, and tossed her weighted body into Enka Lake. He was sentenced to 16 years and eight months. Perhaps the Styles case, to the veteran Moore, seemed to be unwinnable, and — professional vanity deterred him from trying a case he was uncertain of winning. Moreover, the Styles case came with a built-in “evidence problem” that involved his own office: the tainted confession.

Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford — who, along with sheriff’s detectives, initially questioned and interviewed Richard Allen Jackson in 1994 — recalls that, at one point, Jackson told him, “I think I need a lawyer present.” According to the Asheville Citizen-Times account of March 7, 2000, Medford replied, “If you get a lawyer, tell him I know where you bought the gun you killed her with.” Jackson then confessed. Sheriff Medford insisted that, somewhere in all this, he asked for advice from Moore’s office and also from state attorney general. Medford maintains that someone from one of those offices told him that Jackson’s “I think” statement wasn’t a clear request for an attorney; thus, he continued the interrogation. The confession weighed heavily in Jackson’s 1995 conviction for the murder and, later, in its overturn.

Both Medford and Moore have served Western North Carolina well. Their work has done much to make this a “best-rated” place to live, and they justifiably can point to their records with pride. They’re excellent public officials who deserve our overall support. Yet their response to the plea bargain suggests that they, too, feel both remorse and a bothersome relief at the case’s conclusion. Their rebuttals and justifications cloak more than they clarify. “If I’m the cause of this, I take full responsibility,” Medford professed — only he’s not sure he’s the one who screwed up by allowing the confession to continue, and he doesn’t really want to take any responsibility.

Moore, on the other hand, took an indirect tack, initiating a media campaign of his own to restore the tarnished image of his office and to spin the story of why he suddenly changed his mind. Three days after the bargain became public, Moore explained to Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle the difficulties and complications of prosecuting cases like those of Karen Styles and Wendy Kratzert, of the hard questions and difficult choices he must make. Poor guy. The district attorney has a lousy job, but somebody has to run for re-election. Winnable or not, a district attorney committed to the entire process and to a larger concept of justice — and not to the number of convictions he racks up — should have tried the case and let a jury decide the outcome, whatever it might be. Although I didn’t agree with the final verdict in the Simpson case, the entire process of a jury trial “solved” the crime for me.

Without a jury trial, the facts of the tainted confession will forever be obscured, and justice in the Styles case will remain elusive. Additionally, titillating references to “jailhouse confessions” will also remain murky and lightless, as well as irrelevant. Yet a stubborn folk culture here in Western North Carolina will continue to identify itself with Karen Styles and with other murder victims, with public outrage that a young woman’s murder would be suddenly bargained away, and with a sustaining wish that “justice” be done. The imperfections of the Karen Styles case will somehow diminish our image of Asheville and Western North Carolina as a fantasy land, as a place where young women can take carefree strolls and runs in emerald forests near Bent Creeks.

[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]

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