Friday, February 7, 2014

Why I Chose To Write About John Norman Collins

Even though it has been almost fifty years since the Washtenaw County murder cases, more than once I've been asked what my personal connection is to them and John Norman Collins. Why do I feel the need to disturb the ghosts of the past and resurrect the pain of the living? To that, I say that the seven innocent victims were real people who deserve to be remembered. 

I believe Elie Wiesel's quote from his Holocaust memoir, Night, is fitting because it addresses this attitude: "To forget them - would be like killing them twice." We don't get to choose our history, and it is up to the living to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

These 1967-1969 serial murders terrorized the college towns of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan, directly affecting the lives of thousands of Washtenaw County residents. What most people remember about those times is based on the hasty novelization by Edward Keyes, The Michigan Murders.

Besides changing the names of the victims, the witnesses, and their presumed murderer which obscured their real identities, assumptions were made about the backstory to these ugly slayings without contacting people associated with these cases. 

What Keyes should be given credit for is keeping the essential facts and circumstances of these cases intact. Were it not for his novelization, this dark chapter of Michigan history would have vanished with time.

But his work came out only six years after these things happened. He relied heavily on official reports and the copious notes of Eastern Michigan University English Professor Paul McGlynn, who attended all of the court sessions.

Decades of hindsight combined with new living history accounts makes it possible to create a more accurate picture of those times and circumstances and place those events in some meaningful historical context.

Over the years, because of ambiguities in the novel and the absence of factual information about these cases, an urban legend has grown up around John Norman Collins making him a folk hero in some circles. People who were not even born then or old enough to know any better believe the Karen Sue Beineman trial was a travesty of justice.

They show up on the internet comment threads talking about how Collins was hounded by desperate police, persecuted by vengeful prosecutors, and brought low by unfair media coverage. They contend that circumstantial evidence doesn't prove anything and that the Michigan Department of Corrections uses Collins as their poster boy for crime in Michigan. Rather than imprison an innocent man, the mantra goes, the police should be out there looking for the real murderer.

Each of these talking points comes directly from the John Norman Collins Playbook, a product of Collins' many attempts to manipulate the media and mold public opinion from behind bars. Unbelievably after forty-five years, Collins still has the power to cast an evil aura and infect people's minds.

For the above reasons, I was drawn to this subject matter. There is a vacuum in the historical record that needs to be filled. But I have other reasons for writing The Rainy Day Murders, personal reasons.