Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Edward Humes's "Burned"

Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author whose books include Garbology, Mississippi Mud, and the PEN Award-winning No Matter How Loud I Shout.

Humes applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t, and reported the following:
Burned moves back and forth in time from the present day at the California Innocence Project, where Raquel Cohen labors to free Jo Ann Parks through new discoveries in the field of fire science and arson investigation, to 1989-1993, when Jo Ann Parks’ home in Bell, California, burned, her three children died, and she was convicted of their murder.

Page 99 of Burned is part of a deep dive into Cohen’s past, her fears, and her motivations as an innocence lawyer. Captured on page 99 is a scene depicting Cohen’s review of grisly police photos of the Parks home after it was devastated by fire, which leads her to reflect on some uncomfortable parallels between her and Parks’ lives:
She made notes of photos she wanted her expert to examine closely. And then came photo “AA029.jpg.”

Cohen froze, at first not quite sure what she was seeing. The fire had distorted the form and coloration of the subject of the photo, which showed a portion of a fire-ravaged kid’s bedroom. Then the charred objects at the center of the photo resolved into something recognizable and Cohen recoiled. She had stumbled on a photo of one of the dead little girls, RoAnn, sprawled across her burned twin-sized bed. And this battle-tested lawyer, who blithely marches into the nation’s most dangerous prisons to interview convicted killers, who faces off with seasoned prosecutors and cops with far more experience and resources at their disposal, had to fumble to clear the screen and flee the room—anything to avoid looking at any of more of those images of Parks’s dead children.

She would try very hard never to look at them again. And she would have nightmares for weeks about seeing the one.

That’s when Cohen started to realize People v. Parks might differ from her other cases. There were several reasons for this. There was her own family history and its slight parallels with Parks’s, in the form of a disappointing and dysfunctional father figure. Cohen’s biological father had been an alcoholic and an abuser who left the household when Cohen was five. In the years that followed he would regularly promise to visit, or to attend one of his daughter’s gymnastic competitions. And each time, she’d wait, looking through the window for his car to pull in the driveway, or craning her neck in some gymnasium, peering over the crowd to see if she could spot her dad in the stands. Almost every time, he disappointed her. Only later did she learn that he had lived just two long Vegas blocks from the family for five years, yet he never let them know, never came by. His final act, after announcing to a sixteen-year-old Raquel that he was dying of cancer and promising a lavish inheritance for her and her two brothers, was to leave behind an old wallet with five dollars inside, to be split three ways.
Learn more about the book and author at Edward Humes's website.

My Book, The Movie: Burned.

--Marshal Zeringue