I noticed this book was coming out after reading Piu Eatwell’s take on Elizabeth Short’s infamous murder, Black Dahlia, Red Rose. In that book, Eatwell repeatedly references the profiling work of Dr. Paul De River, a psychiatrist who, before psychologically profiling and interviewing Dahlia suspect Leslie Dillon, had used similar techniques to help secure a conviction in the case of Alfred Dyer and the triple murder of three little girls in Inglewood, California in 1937.
It was one of the earliest cases of such criminal profiling in action, with De River’s predictions about the killer’s behavior applied to Dyer, a Works Progress Administration school crossing guard. Dyer was alleged to have lured the girls out of a park, raping and strangling them before participating in a week of mob-like search parties for the culprit. De River theorized that the killer would have inserted himself prominently into the manhunt and public gatherings surrounding the girls.
Author Pamela Everett, a lawyer and law professor, discovered that her family had a unique and sad connection to this disturbing story – two of the three little girls murdered, Melba and Madeline Everett, were her father’s sisters, aunts she’d never met or even knew existed. (The little girls’ friend Jeanette Stephens was the third victim.) Discussion of their deaths was a painful secret, taboo in the family. Everett only found out after some dedicated digging following a cryptic comment of her father’s. She describes what she’s learned of the impact on her family as she pieces things together once the secret’s revealed, especially how it affected her grandparents, and it’s heartbreaking – no way around it.
This case itself is an important one historically for several reasons – as I pointed out, Dyer is referenced repeatedly in other popular crime stories without consideration that he might’ve been wrongfully accused, which is disturbing. I love that there’s been such a recent focus on wrongful convictions, starting with the mega-popularity of Serial and Making a Murderer up to much-discussed nonfiction like Just Mercy, Anatomy of Innocence, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, Beneath a Ruthless Sun – a list that always seems to be growing as more and more injustices are pulled into the light.
As it should be – a conviction doesn’t necessarily equal guilt, look at Amanda Knox for yet another example, and it’s owed to the victims as much as the wrongfully convicted that the truth is sought, even if a case is officially closed. Even if decades have passed, as they have since the so-called “Smiling Monster of Inglewood” was executed for these horrific crimes. Dyer was the last man sentenced to die by hanging in California.
In addition to the powerful questions (including convincing alternative theories and suspects) Everett raises in favor of Dyer’s innocence, the trial and its outcome were also historically significant for their impact on the beginnings of sex offender laws. The case is particularly interesting presented in its historical and community contexts, showing what a turning point this was in modern crime and punishment, even if Everett does argue strongly that the justice system got it wrong here.
I found Everett’s argument for the possibility of more viable suspects, one in particular, very convincing. Unfortunately, it makes this a very difficult, extremely sad read at points – Dyer confessed to the murders, but he didn’t fully understand the situation. He’s not entirely mentally competent, improper interrogation tactics were used, his information conflicted with witness reports – all the usual elements that come together in one of these disaster cases where the public is frantic to have a suspect and police try to make one stick.
Everett’s background is as a lawyer (though she also worked in journalism) and she’s previously authored a criminal law textbook. She has a keen eye for legal, including courtroom, nuances that she carefully uses here, extracting sections of the trial (which was highly sensational at the time) and stretches of dialogue. The storytelling lacked somewhat for me. I found the chapters that focused heavily on the legal element to be somewhat dry and not supplemented enough with her own writing, and although the memoir aspect was very unique considering her personal connection to the story, it fell a little short in gripping me. It may be the nature of the story itself – anything to do with three raped and murdered children is going to be completely harrowing and hard to fully engage with.
But this is still an important story to be told, and I mean that despite how painful some of its elements are to learn about. We have such a strong tendency to assume that conviction automatically equals guilt and that law enforcement and specialists know exactly what they’re doing (although again, criminal profiling was in its infancy and I was surprised it was used here at all.) I think any exploration into healthy doubt, reexamining cases, and putting a spotlight on justice gone awry is worthwhile. This story of the crime and its aftermath, and their lasting legal implications, is eerie and haunting from start to finish.
The Sensational Depression-Era Murders That Became My Family’s Secret
by Pamela Everett
published May 29, 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.