by Andrew DeCanniere
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with the author of one of my all-time favorite series, Julia Dahl, regarding her third novel, Conviction (Minotaur Books, 2017), which came out on March 28th, and which I have been looking forward to ever since I finished reading the second novel in the series, Run You Down (Minotaur Books, 2015). The book, which takes place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn — home to both an Orthodox Jewish and black population — has Rebekah Roberts (around whom the whole series centers) investigating a possible wrongful conviction that occurred twenty-two years earlier, shortly after the riots that took place there. Read on to see what she had to say about the inspiration for her book, wrongful convictions, the importance of women in the justice system, the importance of transparency in police departments and much more.
UR Chicago Magazine: To begin at the beginning, what lead you to write about wrongful convictions, the Crown Heights riots and the time immediately following that?
Julia Dahl: For me, the idea of the story really started with wanting to write about wrongful convictions. I started reading a lot about how here in New York City, and in Brooklyn, in particular, there were these men — almost all black men — who were getting exonerated for crimes that they had been convicted of when they were young. The story started as a wrongful conviction story, and when I started to look into it some more, I realized a lot of these wrongful convictions happened in the late eighties and early nineties. There are many reasons for that, but one is that back then we didn’t have things like DNA testing, which we have now and can make it easier to solve a crime. Even more importantly, I don’t think I quite understood how dramatically different the crime rate was in, for example, 1990 than it is today. In the late eighties and early nineties , New York City had more than 2,000 murders every year. Now, we have something like 400. It’s not as though we had six times as many police officers or six times as many prosecutors working those cases — and those were just the murders. We’re not talking about all of the assaults and the rapes and the burglaries. There was just so much going on. It was like a literal crime wave, and the people investigating them were snowed under. So, it made sense to me that if the public was clamoring, saying ‘We have to solve this crime. We have to make the city safe,’ and the police and the prosecutors were under pressure to close those cases and clean up the city, then mistakes would be made. So, I wanted to look into that.
I didn’t know a lot about the Crown Heights riots. They occurred in the summer of 1991, around the same time as the Rodney King riots, which I was a little more familiar with, because I grew up in California. The Crown Heights riots happened right at the crest of the crime wave. Crown Heights is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and it is a neighborhood that, over the last 15 years or so, has become very Orthodox Jewish and very black. At the time, there was a lot of strife in the community. It was a high-crime area. The black residents felt that the police were harder on them than on the Jewish residents, and that the police were protecting the Jewish residents and not protecting them. The Jewish residents felt like the police were not policing properly and weren’t protecting them from crime, and these are communities in which there is not a lot of overlap. It wasn’t a time when there was a whole lot of reaching out across the aisle to try and understand one another. Basically, what happened was that one evening there was a motorcade carrying a prominent member of one of the ultra-Orthodox communities — the Rebbe. Essentially, one member of the motorcade who was a twenty-something Orthodox man, lost control of the car and killed a young black boy and injured the boy’s cousin. They were on the sidewalk, fixing a bike. It could not have been more tragic.
All of a sudden, they have this car filled with Jewish men having killed a little black child. Everyone sort of rushed to the scene. To this day people disagree about the details, but the Hasidic Jews have their own ambulance service and so an ambulance came. I don’t want to get into too many details, but basically the black residents felt like the Jews didn’t take care of them and the Jews were frightened because the black residents apparently had set upon the driver. So, it just sparked this riot. All of a sudden there is fighting in the streets, there is arson, there’s vandalism. It lasted a couple of days and just sort of laid bare the ugliness and the anger between the two communities. Long story short, all of those things came together, and I thought that is where I want to set my next story.
UR: It sounds a bit like what’s going on in Chicago now — with respect to the high crime rate, obviously — was going on in New York City at the time.
JD: Yeah. I think the crime rate is about so much more than just policing. Police cannot solve a high crime rate. It’s about so many other things. It’s about education and job opportunities, about lead in drinking water — lead-tainted drinking water has been shown to lead to aggression — about decent housing, and less easy access to firearms. I think that, obviously, we simply haven’t figured out how to solve crime explosions when they happen. Violence is the end result of so much going wrong, and while more police — particularly better trained, more empathic police — would hopefully make a difference, it’s a much bigger problem. It’s a problem involving many more systems than just the criminal justice system.
UR: I think it certainly makes the case for coming up with a more holistic approach of addressing these issues, rather than this sort of piecemeal way they often seem to address them. I don’t know that attempting to solve a tiny fraction of the problem, while neglecting to address the rest of the issues that remain, is going to be particularly effective. As you alluded to, it’s also kind of disturbing that the priority seemed to be — as is the case in your new book — clearing the backlog of cases that the NYPD was faced with. It seemed to be more about getting someone rather than getting the right person off of the streets.
JD: Right. Now there are organizations like The Innocence Project, and their entire goal is to work to exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted. Then there also is the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. The former Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson — who tragically recently died of cancer — created a unit within his office that works entirely on looking at old cases. Obviously, they recognize that wrong had been done. What I wanted to write about with this book is not just the unimaginable horror of being imprisoned for most of your whole life for something you didn’t do, but the flip side of that as well. The flip side of that is that there is somebody out there — a murderer — who didn’t get caught. What is he doing now? What has he done in the ensuing 25 years, while he was allowed to go free?
UR: Right. Presumably, they would have been left to commit a whole bunch of other crimes.
JD: It’s certainly possible.
UR: I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to think that someone who has done something horrific once, they could easily do it again.
JD: Right. And I imagine there would almost be this sense of empowerment.
UR: Switching gears a little bit — and not to paint all police officers with too broad a brush, because I’d venture to say that most officers are in their line of work for the right reasons and do their job the right way — but your book seems to suggest that coercing a confession would not have been an unusual tactic at the time, particularly when it comes to certain officers, like a certain detective in your book.
JD: And there definitely have been people who have been accused of that in real life. Then, there’s such a fine line, too. If you’re a detective, and you truly believe this person did it, maybe you tell a couple of lies to get them to say what you think is the truth. I mean, there are just so many shades of gray. This is one very good argument for videotaping all police interviews, so that the judge and jury can see ‘Oh, wow. It wasn’t the suspect who brought up this specific piece of knowledge. It was the officer.’ Also, how long have they been sitting in the room? Was he allowed to talk to a lawyer or family member?
One of the things that also interested me a lot about wrongful convictions and false confessions — because there have been a lot of studies and articles that came out about how false confessions happen. I think that many of us think ‘I would never confess to a murder. That’s insane.’ However, people who are under 21 — teenagers — are so suggestible and there’s a sense of ‘Alright, I know I didn’t do it, but if I just say that I did it, then they’ll figure it out eventually. I just need to get out of here. I need to go home. I need to see my family.’ You start to understand how that can happen, and we now know that people who are under 21 are much more likely to confess falsely. In my book, I talk about the Central Park Five, five young teenagers — I think one was 14 — who confessed to a brutal rape that they did not commit after they spent many long hours in the police station. We now know they did not commit it. You start seeing that a lot of these men who are now being released were very young when they went into the system.
UR: And while we’re on the topic of the justice system, one of the characters in your book also touches on the importance of women in the justice system, which I thought is an interesting and important piece of the story to touch on as well.
JD: I think that having women involved in policing and prosecution is so important. Just, in general, having a full measure of our society involved with the system that decides whether people go free or have their freedom taken from them is very important. Like the military or Wall Street, it has traditionally been a ‘boys club,’ and I think it’s difficult for women. They have to be twice as good at the same job in order to get the same attention and to get promotions, and I always wanted to write about a woman who tried to do the right thing, and for whom it hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t always worked out.
UR: What I really find interesting is that though we already have gotten to learn a bit about Rebekah and her personal life, in this book she’s sort of forced to make yet another tough decision with regards to Saul and her mother, Aviva. I thought it was kind of interesting watching her navigate the issue. There’s this sort of conflict of interest. She clearly feels she has a certain responsibility as a journalist, and yet her choices can have this real impact on some of the people in her life.
JD: I mean, since the first book Rebekah has always had to deal with conflicts of interest, and so I wanted to sort of continue that. I think that as she grows and gets more experience as a reporter and human being, she’s able to navigate it a little bit better. After the second book, Run You Down, she now has met her mother and, at some level, there’s some closure to that. I also wanted to write a little bit about how by closing this sort of mystery — OK, her mother is alive and here is who she is — it opens up so many other problems and mysteries. ‘OK, now I actually have to learn to live with this person, and do I even like them?’ All of the anger and hurt that her abandonment created is brought up again every time she sees her. That was something I wanted to play with, with regards to Rebekah.
UR: And I think that she comes at this ethical dilemma from a very different perspective than her mother might be coming from. I think it’s pretty clear there is this significant difference of opinion as to what the ‘right’ thing to do might be.
JD: Exactly. And even though Aviva has been a huge part of this book — she sort of looms large, and I think it is a constant challenge for Rebekah, because she has very different values than Rebekah does. If Rebekah wants to have a relationship with her, she has to start trying to understand those values — or at least contending with them.
UR: Because I think she’s decidedly leaning toward the opposite decision. I think she makes that pretty clear. Interestingly, though he would be affected as well, Saul himself seems to be very much on the same page as Rebekah.
JD: I think of Saul and Rebekah as sharing a lot in common, in part because they think of their jobs — policing and journalism — a little bit as callings. They really are attempting, in their own way, to make an impact on the world and to sort of right wrongs. Even though they go about it in different ways, they both understand you sometimes have to make difficult ethical decisions and compromises to make that work, and they struggle in different ways to make the right decisions in difficult situations.
UR: And Saul actually says, in essence, that he was a police officer for the same reason that Rebekah is a journalist. I think that was perhaps a little lost on Aviva at first. At least, she doesn’t really seem to see it that way, or to draw the same parallel, until he puts it into those terms.
UR: The other thing I thought many might find eye-opening is the whole dynamic between Rebekah — journalists, in general, really — and the NYPD. You talk a little bit about the Freedom of Information Law and the Media Relations department of the NYPD, and how even though the law exists, sometimes they create more of a barrier rather than make information more accessible.
JD: Yeah, especially in a place like New York, which is such a big city — the NYPD is such a big department and there are so many journalists. In small towns, you can just call the police chief and he’ll answer the phone and answer your questions. It’s not like that in New York at all. While there obviously are reasons that the Chief of Police can’t answer my phone call, I think that the department can err too far on the side of a lack of transparency. I don’t really think that’s good for anybody.
UR: Especially now. I know we’re talking about New York City, but I think it’s safe to say what has been going on in Chicago has made national headlines — there’s the whole thing of the Department of Justice’s report regarding the Chicago Police and their practices, for one — and I think that, too, makes the case for why transparency is a better thing all-around.
JD: Absolutely. And it’s not about trying to make officers’ jobs more difficult. I think we all know being a police officer is a difficult, dangerous job. It doesn’t make their job any easier if other people are doing it badly, or doing it without integrity. Although I understand that nobody likes to be watched while doing their job, and nobody likes to be second-guessed, the police have a great responsibility and a great amount of power. They carry firearms, they are legally allowed to kill people, they make decisions about arrests — and with that power I believe should come pretty strict oversight from the department itself, as well as from journalists and the public.
UR: As you seem to suggest, I think transparency can only ultimately build trust. I think they’ll find that to be very true in Chicago, for instance, if and when the reforms are made. That’s a huge component of communities trusting that they are doing the right thing and that they really are there to protect and serve — that they are on the community’s side. I just thought that’s kind of an interesting point. Speaking of policing, you also talk a bit about racism and anti-Semitism. You can certainly see it happening when Saul joins the force. He is an officer. He is, for all intents and purposes, one of them. Yet, he isn’t exactly embraced by the other officers.
JD: Yeah. Anybody who is different is going to have difficulty fitting in — especially in a closed sort of society, like the police department. Saul deals with that and, on some level, it forces him to do things that he wouldn’t normally do, because he’s trying to get respect and fit in.
UR: It’s kind of interesting that he does go from one sort of insular community that may be distrustful of people from the outside — this ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — to another community that can be kind of insular itself.
JD: He always sort of feels like an outsider, in both of those communities, because he’s constantly struggling to fit in.
UR: And it doesn’t necessarily seem like he gets the acceptance that he’s looking for fully in either place — at least at first.
JD: Exactly, and I think he’s sort of starting to accept that’s just his lot.
UR: Interestingly, that’s kind of what happened with Aviva, as well. She was trying to get away from something and ended up walking right back into what she saw as a similar situation. So, there’s this kind of parallel between Aviva’s experience and Saul’s experience as well.
UR: Another aspect of the story that I found interesting is that everybody seems to have some kind of a justification for why they handled the case in the way that they did. A couple of the people involved in the case seem to use the fact that they were going through difficult personal times to explain away why, perhaps, they were less than attentive. It just seemed to me that there were all of these excuses, people absolving themselves and justifying their actions — even when they may very well have been wrong.
JD: I think that was one of the things I wanted to discuss — the complications involved in all of this. We talk about the system putting someone away, but it’s really just human beings with everyday problems — relationship problems, health problems — and they are the ones making the decisions that impact people’s lives. I wanted to look at how it’s easy to kind of excuse yourself from culpability, but if everybody does that, the end result is injustice.
UR: It’s just a bit baffling. You have a person’s life in your hands. I think it may be easy to say and, perhaps, hard to do, but when you’re entrusted with something like this, you can’t really let your personal life get in the way when you have someone else’s life in your hands.
JD: Exactly. Easier said than done, sometimes, but important to remember.
UR: That just really struck me as an important point — from moment one until the moment that he’s put in jail, there are all of these people who have this serious responsibility and yet may be taking shortcuts and letting their personal stuff get in the way.
JD: Even in Invisible City, one of the themes that I wanted to write about the idea of people doing sloppy journalism, people cutting corners and forgetting this or that, or just sort of shrugging off a mistake, and how problematic that is. How it does all kinds of bad things, including undermining the public’s trust in journalism, which is especially important right now. A similar theme in this book is the idea that if you have a job where, on some level the public has entrusted the functions of society to you, you better do it well. You can’t be careless when you’re a police officer, you can’t be careless when you’re a prosecutor, and you shouldn’t be careless when you’re a journalist, either. Yet, people are, and the results can be devastating.
UR: Speaking of journalism, I think one of the things that I really like about Rebekah is how she’s really committed to what she does, and she does — as you’ve said — want to have this positive impact on the world around her. She seems to find her work really gratifying.
JD: I think she really loves being a journalist. She’s constantly trying to be a better journalist and, you know, sometimes failing, but she loves it. She thinks of it as a calling and, even though she screws up and bad things happen to her, she wants to be out there. I think she sees it as solving problems and righting wrongs. She feels passionate about that.
UR: Switching gears a little bit, last but not least, what have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?
JD: I just finished a book by Adam Sternbergh, The Blinds, but it actually doesn’t come out until August. He wrote Shovel Ready, which I learned about because it was nominated for an Edgar the same year that Invisible City was. Then I also just read A Separation by Katie Kitamura. It’s kind of a quieter book about a woman whose husband disappears, essentially. It’s really well done. I just started reading Cara Hoffman’s new book, Running. She is just a beautiful writer. They’re not traditional mysteries, but there’s always a crime involved, which I love. Really, the writing is just so good.
You can find out more about Julia, her novels Invisible City (Minotaur Books, 2014) and Run You Down (Minotaur Books, 2015), and her new book, Conviction (Minotaur Books, 2017), on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.
In addition, you can find my 2014 interview with Julia regarding her debut novel, Invisible City, by clicking here, or my 2015 interview regarding her second novel, Run You Down, by clicking here.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.