Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

In the fall of 2014 I began attending hearings, some of them banal and procedural, others more emotional, for a Los Angeles murder trial that was cranking its way through the system. The case went on for five years and involved long hours on the ninth floor of the downtown criminal courts, where high-profile murder cases are heard. When I could not make a trial date, I hired a researcher to go in my stead. By early 2015, even as I knew I would see this case all the way to the end—and I did—I had decided that while the observations I was gathering might constitute a personal experience, a set of thoughts, I would never present them as reported journalism—and I didn’t.

This was a “special circumstances” case involving four defendants, two of them minors being tried as adults, the other two just barely into adulthood. They were accused of killing a USC graduate student named Xinran Ji, having hit him with a bat and a wrench as they attempted to steal his backpack. It was the defendants’ age that had originally caught my interest, my concern. Kids. Did they have to be sacrificed for this horrible act? There was a fifth person who had been present, if not a participant, a fourteen-year-old girl. I went to her trial dates at Inglewood Juvenile Court. Normally, juvenile hearings are closed to the public, but more serious cases, as listed in the California Welfare and Institutions code, are not. No journalists, nor representatives of the victim’s family, nor administrators from USC, were present. The prosecuting attorney had no interest in this fourteen-year-old; she could not be tried as an adult, and so it was like she didn’t exist. Convictions were what mattered.

The dynamic among these kids wasn’t something the D.A.’s office needed to examine, even as, to me, it seemed crucial to any understanding of how they could have made this wrong turn and killed Xinran Ji. The administrators from USC, men in suits, were there at every important trial date. The D.A.’s office, I sensed, had reassured them that they were going for maximum penalties, life without parole for all four. A perpetrator becomes a kind of victim under such circumstances, but these four exhibited no understanding of what was coming to them. They fidgeted. They signaled to friends and family. They looked bored, practically falling asleep. The mother of the youngest defendant ate and drank in the courtroom and never seemed to absorb the gravity of the situation, that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Alejandra Guerrero—whom the judge repeatedly addressed as “Alejandro,” as if the very act she was accused of had stripped her of her gender—was going to prison for life. Alberto Ochoa, the other juvenile being tried as an adult, seemed to acquire new tattoos with each trial date, and by the time of his sentencing, ink crept up the side of his face like a curtain threatening to close, as if his former identity was being eclipsed by the vast world of LA county jail.

There was nothing to say about this trial I’d sat through that would help anyone, not poor Xinran Ji, and not these kids. It is not exactly far-fetched to regard journalists as “part of the criminal-justice system,” Janet Malcolm argues, “small but necessary cogs in its machinery of retribution.” Malcolm’s reflection on her vocation is correct, if unrepentant, and no cog in the machinery did I want to be. Instead, I put my notes into a box like a radioactive isotope, a box I open only to tell you that I keep it shut.

Those who find themselves shuttled between court and jail until they are convicted and sent off to prison are typically people whose lives are full of what the legal system calls mitigating factors, even if such mitigation isn’t heard in court, or doesn’t aid their case. Mitigation is the human part, the background, the larger context of life and whatever predicaments lead to an act that commences someone’s journey inside the machinery of retribution. When the act is murder, one might be tempted to cling to mitigation—I certainly do—to account for what mystifies. But often at the heart of an act of violence there is an aporia, and the answer to why one person killed another a foreclosed truth. Courts, in any case, don’t concern themselves with truths of this kind. The narrative structure of a juridical proceeding is far more rigid, running as it does on two axes, “guilt” and “innocence,” and in the shades and degrees of specific charges.

For the rest of us, “why” is the weightiest question and the only one that matters, even as the answer is withheld and repressed, both by the person who committed the act and by everyone else, especially in cases in which a sympathetic subject has done something that lies outside the bounds of that same sympathy. Janet Malcolm—the toughest and most relentless of American journalists—admitted that she harbored a “sisterly bias” toward Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was convicted of hiring a relative to kill her estranged husband. In Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Malcolm’s book about the case, she details Borukhova’s rough treatment by lawyers, judges, jury, and most especially by the law guardian appointed to her young daughter. Malcolm’s trademark maneuver is to reflexively bring the heartlessness of journalism to bear on her own practice of it, the effect of which typically compounds rather than undercuts the severity of her judgments. But the prevailing sentiment of her book-length essay on the trial of Borukhova is softer and more open to enigma: “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.”

When Alice Diop, a French filmmaker of Senegalese descent, traveled to the provincial town of Saint-Omer to observe the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman charged with killing her fifteen-month-old daughter, the mystery that drew Diop to the case was not whether Kabou had done what she was accused of. Kabou admitted to having done it. But she presented as someone sophisticated and complex and sympathetic. Most importantly, she was credible. She was telling the truth. Yes, she did it. But she claimed innocence.

In Diop’s 2022 dramatic feature Saint Omer, inspired by this case, Rama, a novelist and professor who has ascended to the Parisian grande école Sciences Po, tells her students that they will look at the work of Marguerite Duras and, more specifically, how the author “uses the power of her narrative to sublimate reality.” Rama shows her students footage of women having their heads shaved at the end of the war while she reads lines from Duras’s script for Hiroshima mon amour. “Heroes with no imagination” is how Duras’s character describes those who punish her for having an affair with a German soldier. Instead of banishing her to shame, Duras delivers her character into what Rama refers to as “a state of grace.” It’s not clear what Rama thinks about this, and this ambiguity is what drives the scene: Rama is smart enough to know that she herself is not innocent of such projections, of her own narrative distortions. But for the sake of her lecture, she pins these infractions on Duras, while seated at a lectern that echoes, unmistakably, a judge’s bench.

I watched this film at a local theater with the artist Stan Douglas, a friend and neighbor and my regular moviegoing partner. A few beats after the opening, Rama travels by train to the town of Saint-Omer, checks into a hotel, puts her own sleeping bag on the bed after inspecting and rejecting the hotel blanket, and the next morning, walks to the courthouse. As Rama takes a seat on a bench in the courtroom gallery, Stan leaned over and whispered, “She’s you.” We laughed. The writer who studies Duras, and who goes to watch trials, minds other people’s business.

The court is trying the case of Laurence Coly, a fictional version of Fabienne Kabou. The judge enters, takes her position at the bench, and requests that all journalists leave. The camera seizes on Rama’s face. She’s stock-still. We feel her mind ticking. The journalists must leave, but Rama doesn’t. She’s not a journalist. She writes novels. But also, as we glean from her expression, her doubtful breath, she does not know why she is at this trial, and without an intention of reportage, any share in the realm of moral clarity and objective certainties, the rules do not apply. She’s not Janet Malcolm. I’m not Janet Malcolm. She is going to stay.

Coly tells the judge she hopes to find out, at this trial, why she committed her crime, but what is illuminated, over the course of the film, is why Rama is there, and not why Coly killed her daughter. In every scene where she takes the stand, Coly’s skin tone, her brown knit blouse, and the wood paneling behind her match so closely it’s as though she’s vanishing, as Stan pointed out to me.

The case rests with Coly’s defense, and then we see an empty courtroom, as if she has disappeared into its walls, as Alberto Ochoa was disappearing under his tattoos. We don’t learn the verdict, and we don’t need to. It won’t explain anything.

Even amid the recent, gripping murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, scion of a century-long family dynasty of South Carolina trial lawyers and prosecutors, I was mostly interested in the proceedings, and less so the verdict.

On the final day, prosecutor John Meadors, the son of a Methodist minister, would rebut for the state before the jury was set to deliberate on whether Murdaugh was “a family annihilator,” as the state contended, or merely a con man, as his defense lawyers countered, guilty of ninety-nine financial crimes but not of the murder of his wife and son. Meadors came across as a respectful servant of decency. He looked a little disheveled, as if a mother had run a wet comb through his gray hair just before he went out in front of the cameras and the court, and as if he were personally burdened by the world’s long history of chicanery and malice. As he spoke, he held up his hand, drawing his thumb together with his pointer finger to make haptic contact with the truth, to touch it. If this veteran trial attorney was engaged in the dirty business of sublimating reality with the power of a narrative, he did it very well. He spoke to the jury about common sense, about “what’s real.”

Before the defense had rested its case, Murdaugh himself had taken the stand. His testimony was meant to explain why he had consistently lied about his whereabouts in the minutes leading up to the murders. He talked about his struggles with addiction, his fear of law enforcement. His testimony was intended to create the atmosphere of a twelve-step meeting, as if it were Alex’s turn to speak to his humble battles against inner demons. But there was nothing humble about him. He wasn’t afraid of law enforcement; he was law enforcement. An almost limitless power had allowed him to construct a life built entirely on theft, manipulation, and deceit. Suddenly that power had drained, and we all watched as he tried—and failed—to sublimate reality with his lame narrative.

As thousands watched on live stream, the camera would pause occasionally on the face of Murdaugh’s older son, Buster, with his bright red hair, dark eyes like tarnished coins, and on Alex’s sister, Lynn, whose imposing physical presence seemed meant to somehow stop these proceedings from putting an end to her family’s long reign. That most of the faces in the courtroom were white might not appear strange if you didn’t know that Colleton County, where this trial took place, and neighboring Hampton County, where the Murdaugh family is from, are respectively 36 and 52 percent black. Both are part of the geopolitical Black Belt of the American South, a region where plantation slavery was concentrated. During Reconstruction, South Carolina was the only state with a legislature that was majority-black. This is the pretext for D. W. Griffith’s deeply racist The Birth of a Nation, which takes place in the fictional South Carolina town of “Piedmont.” I’ve been revisiting the film on account of the fact that Stan Douglas is remaking and reprising it as a five-channel work that will reconstruct the scene of Gus’s pursuit of Flora, and Flora’s leap to her death, from the perspective of black characters who, unlike Gus, are not fictive bogeymen of the white imagination.

Clifton Newman, the judge who ruled on the Murdaugh case, is black. His clerk is black. One of the bailiffs is black. Two of twelve jurors. Shelly Smith, the caregiver for Murdaugh’s mother whose testimony chipped away at Murdaugh’s alibi, is black. As Smith testified, Murdaugh glared at her with rage, his calculated performance suddenly subordinate to the affront that this woman could get up there and knock him down. Still, the trial left almost entirely out of sight its own racial backstory, its protagonists holdouts of an ancien régime, good ol’ boys with their hunting properties and beachfront homes, “Mister Alex” playacting the landowning class of yore while making money by stealing from personal-injury clients like nineteen-year-old Hakeem Pinckney, who became a quadriplegic after a car accident. This was a story about Southern racial terror, if only in the form of the implosion of a single white family.

The Murdaugh trial jury deliberated, as you’ve probably heard, for only three hours, and the rest is history. Murdaugh was guilty. Judge Newman sentenced him to two life terms and addressed him in a tone that was intimate and direct and damning, referring to the Murdaughs as “a family who has controlled justice in this community for over a century.” When Newman pointed out that Murdaughs, including Alex, had condemned many to death “probably for lesser conduct,” he was implicitly conjuring the disproportionate sentencing of black men in that state and in every state, just as Stan’s version of The Birth of a Nation examines stereotypes that are not delimited to D. W. Griffith’s movie. In reaction to Judge Newman’s comment, Murdaugh’s sister, Lynn, rolled her eyes and shook her head, as though this saga, the stirring up of racial grievance, were her personal version of the Lost Cause.

Seeing that shake of Lynn’s head, I was brought deep into the clutches of a confounding temptation: to regard juridical proceedings as coherent and just. A writer should be wary of moral simplicity. A writer is almost ontologically predisposed toward the guilty, and in locating their state of grace. But this case had no moral complexity. Murdaugh is bad and he did bad. And crucially, he exceeds the bounds of individual error. A normal person tumbles through the world, picking up mitigation, the lint of their existence. But Murdaugh is the world that others tumbled through. His trial has taken on an aspect of historical retribution for racism and abuse of power, even as we cannot pin the legacy of white supremacy on one Bubba with a pill habit, nor rely on his punishment to rectify the past. This is why the Murdaugh trial and its denouement of a psycho’s disappearance into state prison—a nightmarish system in which I take no stock—was so addicting and so ultimately unsatisfying. It introduced a craving, an itch, to keep watching, to scratch, but with no real resolution, no final fix.

More from

| View All Issues |

October 2023

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now