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Archive for April, 2008

Writers are an odd bunch.  The sort of people who sit around contemplating murder, rape, espionage, sabotage, and other heinous acts.  Writers probably spend more time thinking about these things than the people who actually commit them.  After all, we have to imagine the proper motivation, because we don’t have it on tap.

We also spend an inordinate amount of time research ways to torture, kill, and maim people.  Just know, my fellow writers, that you are in dangerous territory.  When you start to type in search terms on Google, think: if someone close to you were murdered, would you want the police to look at your search history and see “suffocation death” or “manual strangulation”?

When your average car mechanic, or CPA, or stay-at-home mom, does those searches, it may be an indication of nefarious intent, but writers are by-and-large non-violent people.  And they need to be careful.  Perhaps you find yourself writing a murder mystery, and you wonder, How could you kill someone so it would look like a suicide? You open up your internet browser, go to Google, and start to type in your search terms.

Stop. Meet Tom Murray:

In this picture, he doesn’t look like a respected linguistics professor at a Big Twelve university.  He was.  When I first met him, he was.  As a graduate student, I was his research assistant for two years, and I always admired him.  From this photo, you can see that he’s a big man, although  stress has made him lose weight.  The photo is a testament to the more subtle skills of a news photographer–the angle creates menace where it doesn’t exit.  Tom isn’t a menacing guy, despite his size.  At the moment this photo was snapped, however, he’d just been convicted of his wife’s murder.

Her death was brutal, bloody, violent, and likely rather prolonged, according to the coroner. With Tom and his ex in a custody disagreement over their daughter, the police started looking at Tom almost immediately.  There is no physical evidence to place him at the crime scene.  Not a fingerprint or stray hair or drop of blood, but when the police searched his computer they found what they considered incriminating evidence: an internet search for alternate routes between Manhattan and Lawrence, Kansas, their respective residences.  Another incriminating internet search: information on exotic poisons, including fugu fish.  Additionally, police retrieved some e-mails from his computer in which he expressed his concern that his ex-wife intended to move to California to be with her new boyfriend.

Of course, many innocent people check for alternate routes for drives they make regularly.  Of course, Tom’s ex-wife died as a result of being stabbed and beaten, not poisoned.  For the jury, though, it added up to murder.  Tom is serving a sentence life in prison in El Dorado, Kansas, although he is currently mounting an appeal.

What was Tom’s explanation for his internet searches?  He was sick of driving the interstate to pick up his daughter for custodial visits.  Like many college English professors, he dreamed of being a writer.  The story he was working on hinged on a murder by poison.

So think carefully.  Before you type in “garage door decapitation” or “insulin shock death,” turn off your computer, go down to the public library, and do your research there.

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