When Chandra Levy’s body was found, everyone knew who did it. Dominick Dunne, purveyor of all salacious truth, told us. The police had no doubt. It was a made for TV murder. The culprit was . . . wait. Representative Gary Condit was smeared far and wide for his affair with Levy, every orifice of his personal life revealed for all to see, and universally branded a murderer who got away with it.
But today, a mere 8 years later, it turns out that the suspect is Ingmar Guandique? But that’s no fun. There’s no politician to smear. The one-size fits all answer to murder investigation fails. Our faith in justice is shaken.
Not that I was a fan of Gary Condit’s conservative flavor of Democratic politics, nor an admirer of a 53 year old man messing around with a 23 year old intern. But he was pronounced a murder far and wide, and for all that he was, a murderer he was not.
Having enjoyed (on behalf of clients) the knee-jerk police jump to conclusion that the spouse/lover is always the prime suspect when something bad happens, the idea that cops now think that it was a random act of violence by some unconnected person is like a bad joke. Trying to find, no less gather actual evidence, of the perpetrator of a crime is much, much harder than deciding who the bad guys is first and then trying to construct a case against him.
Arguing that maybe, just maybe, their knee-jerk assumptions ignore the potential that something happened which they might possibly learn about if only they actually investigated the crime instead of the pre-determined criminal, is a waste of breath. Cops know everything. Just ask them. They’ll tell you.
Sadly for the cops, sometimes they can’t just pin the crime on the easiest target. Then they actually have to earn their keep, which can interfere with a well deserved nap.
Sadly for Gary Condit, it only took the police an extra 8 years to find someone else to target.
Sadly for Dominick Dunne, he hasn’t changed a bit.
Update: While I tend to avoid using psycho-social jargon, mostly because I fear that I would use it wrong, Mike at Crime & Federalism wields it like a scalpel and, for better or worse, it better captures the problem than my fumbling about in the darkness.
How many narratives make perfect sense? How often do we see patterns that do not exist? How often are we fooled by randomness?
Also, might the police have found Ms. Levy’s killer earlier if they hadn’t concluded that Gary Condit was somehow involved? What evidence do we overlook once our minds have already been made up, once we’ve already reached a conclusion?
I don’t pimp books on cognitive bias because I think those books are fun and games. Some are a collection of graduate-school level articles. It ain’t pop corn for the mind. An ignorance of the biases that blind our thinking can have devastating effects. People lose their jobs and go to prison based on simple thinking errors.
Can you say confirmation bias?
In this comment below, Anne Skove “explains” it (though not endorsing the explanation), unintentionally proving the point. “They” look for the things “they” expect to find for the reasons “they” believe are good, thereby not looking at the crime without a bias and instead solving it. What Anne omits, and Mike recognizes, is that “they” solve the crime first and only thereafter consider the evidence.