Longreads Best of 2020: Crime Reporting

Our top picks in Crime Reporting for 2020.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After taking a plunge into the murky world of crime, we narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these Best of Crime reads, showcasing gripping tales and insights into the human psyche. 

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I Hope Our Daughters Will Not Be Punished (Justine van der Leun, Dissent Magazine)

Van der Leun’s piece details the plight of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris — who, incarcerated for killing an abusive partner, wrote her letters from solitary confinement in a Texas prison. 

This year a lot of us have spent vast expanses of time isolated from family and friends — and so for many, this story will strike a chord. When van de Leun discusses pandemic lockdowns, she states, “Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.” This is a powerful concept — if we, with all the distractions of Zoom and Netflix and pets, can still ache for human connection when isolating, consider what it must feel like for those locked in solitary for months, with their senses so deprived of stimulation they magnify to “smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away.” 

By talking to Harris, van de Leun gives us an inkling of what it is like to live in a condition that is “classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days.” A registered nurse, Harris is terrified of COVID-19, and the unsanitary conditions she finds herself in — her unit is rarely cleaned, and she showers in one of three showers shared by forty-two women. 

This essay also echoes another horrific event of 2020 — the death of George Floyd, killed during his arrest in Minneapolis. The racism that Black people experience at the hands of the police can extend to prison wardens. In Texas in 2015, a Black man named Mark Sabbie was feeling unwell — he was given a disciplinary ticket for “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.” He was cuffed in his cells and left alone — and found dead the next morning. 

An emotional read: but an important look at how the challenges wider society has faced in 2020 are magnified inside the microcosm of a Texas prison.

Pleas of Insanity: The Mysterious Case of Anthony Montwheeler (Rob Fischer, Rolling Stone Magazine)

What does it mean to be “criminally insane”? The official answer sounds simple — to have a mental illness that impairs you from telling the difference between right and wrong. But mental illness is a nuanced spectrum — and, to many, it seems impossible to decipher someone’s state of mind during a crime. This story is a fascinating exploration into the complexities of the insanity plea in the United States — which, even though there are “lots of tests and things you can do to kind of back up your intuition … in the end, it’s kind of this gut feeling.” 

Using the case study of Anthony Montwheeler,  Fischer explores what can happen when a gut feeling isn’t enough. Montwheeler apparently played the system. Charged in 1996 with kidnapping his wife and son at gunpoint he was found “guilty except for insanity.” Twenty years later, he claimed he faked mental illness by studying a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and mimicking behavioral traits — to avoid incarceration in favor of a state psychiatric hospital — and now wanted to be discharged. After he spoke at a hearing for a total of eight-and-a-half minutes, a review board decided Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” and the state was legally required to discharge him. Had Montwheeler been pretending all those years? It seems no one really knows for sure, but what we do know is that after his release he went on to murder his third ex-wife, Annita Harmon. 

This case is a rarity — the insanity defense is pursued in fewer than one percent of all criminal trials. But, however hard to define, mental health is still an obvious factor in crime: “37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional at some point in their lives that they suffer from a mental disorder.” Fischer shows that while the insanity defense may be flawed,  there is still a clear link between mental health and criminality — with a lack of mental health care, and the resulting issues, apparent.

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Andy Greenberg, Wired)

Greenberg is meticulous in his detailed analysis of Marcus Hutchins’ character, a hacker who some view as a criminal, and others as the savior of the internet. It’s a thrilling story, with many twists and turns, but also an exploration into people’s moral complexities.

Hutchins stopped the worst malware attack the world had ever seen — christened WannaCry. In the space of an afternoon, it destroyed, by some estimates, nearly a quarter of a million computers’ data — before Hutchins found the kill switch. He was celebrated as a hero, but Hutchins himself knew “what it was like to sit behind a keyboard, detached from the pain inflicted on innocents far across the internet.” Three years earlier he had been the chief author of Kronos — a type of malware focused on stealing banking login credentials. 

After disabling WannaCry, Hutchins’ previous work with Kronos was discovered and he was arrested. The hacker world rallied in support — which left Hutchins ravaged by guilt for what he had done, but even the judge in his trial concluded that “one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero.” This is a thought-provoking insight into the gradual descent into a criminal world, the climb back out again, and the layers of gray in between.

The Wind Delivered the Story (Josina Guess, The Bitter Southerner)

It feels jarring to put the terms “beautiful” and “lynching” in the same sentence — but this personal essay about the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle is beautifully written. Guess’ writing is almost lyrical — as she explains how the wind blew “history into my path” in wonderfully descriptive language.

When Guess moved into her farmhouse in Georgia she found a box of old newspapers from the mid-1940s through the early 50s. She stored them in the woodshed until a blustery autumn storm disturbed them and scattered them about the property. One headline that appeared, like “a bird I had been expecting in this landscape that carries memories of racialized violence,” read “State Seeks Death Sentence For All 31 Lynchers.” Not ready for the emotional toll of exploring this incident further, Guess tucked the paper away, but the story wanted to be told, and a few weeks later the wind blew the conclusion across the garden: “28 White Men Get Blanket Acquittal in South Carolina Mass Lynch Trial.” It was Willie Earle who was killed, to avenge the fatal stabbing of a cab driver named Thomas Brown. Arrested, then almost immediately kidnapped from jail, Earle had no opportunity to stand trial — his guilt or innocence was never proven. His murderers were given that chance, but despite ample evidence and confessions, were found innocent.

Guess’ work focuses on dismantling racism in Georgia, so it seemed fate that this story, literally, landed at her feet. She went on to research the history of the Willie Earle murder, discovering it was considered the last lynching in South Carolina, and, although the trial was a miscarriage of justice, it marked the end of mob violence and the beginning of a rumbling that eventually became the Civil Rights Movement.

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People (Rachel Nuwer, Longreads)

Amongst one or two other things, 2020 was the year people learned the names Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The Netflix series Tiger King landed on our screens at the same time that many of us were in lockdown due to COVID-19, and was binge-watched by millions. This story by Rachel Nuwer was written before we met these characters on Netflix while clutching our loo rolls and hand sanitizer, and her piece sheds a brighter light on their complicated personalities.

Nuwer’s piece explores the murder-for-hire plots that Exotic instigated against Baskin, but her focus also remains firmly on the animals around which the story revolves. Exotic was not only convicted of murder-for-hire — but of 17 wildlife crimes, including illegally killing five tigers and trafficking them across state lines — a significant conviction when there is still no oversight over big cat ownership by the federal government. This investigation goes beyond the larger than life characters and the human drama, and actually shows us the lives of the animals that are owned by America’s big cat people.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.