The great American crime story
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One of the controversies of the past week turned on a wisp of lingerie. Did Ronald Grimm buy Beverly Coon a camisole, a chemise or a lesser genus of intimate wear known as a "baby doll nightie" two weeks before she tried to kill him?
Your correspondent searched Web sites and catalogs, and consulted no less an authority than the judge on this point of law. Naming lingerie turns out to be more art than science. That is how it should be.
Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412/263-1965).
The hallway debate on what to call Defense Exhibit D was but one joy attendant to a perfectly entertaining crime -- the kind that guiltlessly manages to stand for something more than itself, yet makes sure the "something else" requires no introspection. Some sinners fall to God's lightning bolt. Who'd have thought he'd have used a banana peel?
Much of what passes through the courtrooms of Allegheny County is uninspired. Two men walk into a bar. One walks out. Yawn.
But Beverly Coon, who was at the time a Baldwin-Whitehall School Board member, stood accused of stalking her boyfriend, Dr. Grimm, then the superintendent of schools in Bethel Park. Not only did the commonwealth say she stalked, they say she took a plate of pastries to his house late at night -- ladyfingers, for the love of metaphor. They were laced with drugs. Dr. Grimm gobbled, swooned and awoke with his bed burning both symbolically and, to his great inconvenience, physically.
Both Ms. Coon and Dr. Grimm were married, albeit rather tentatively, to other people at the time they began dancing the horizontal tango.
Hence, exhibits included love notes, a "Wizard of Oz" greeting card, an anonymous hate note titled, "Home Wrecker," and a turquoise silk-and-lace nightie from Victoria's Secret.
He said he wanted to reconcile with his wife. She insisted he told her no such thing. He said he had asked her to stop pestering him. She said they had sex on his apartment floor the Monday before the fire. Prosecutors said she lit the bed with an open flame. The defense suggested a battery on his computer ignited. For a time, I suspected the ignition source to be friction.
The garish intersection of politics, sex, the educational system, jealously, revenge and attempted murder captivated the public. It is no secret among aficionados of the genre that the American murder has been in serious decline as an art form and I cannot be alone in admiring Ms. Coon and Dr. Grimm for restoring ballyhoo to its rightful place in the civic agenda.
In 1925 the world turned its attention to the courts of New York where Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey went on trial for that year's best murder. Mrs. Snyder, weary of her drab life with husband Albert, took out a large insurance policy on her man.
She pestered Mr. Gray, a corset salesman and Sunday School teacher, into hiding in their home, where he conked Albert on the noggin with a sash weight, and the little Missus finished the job with a piano wire.
This crime was solved with much the same precision as the Coon-Grimm case. Investigators came into the room, looked around, asked a few questions that elicited semi-coherent answers and drew up the arrest papers.
La Snyder, as H. L. Mencken called her, was electrocuted in Sing-Sing three years later. Mr. Gray preceded her in the big chair. His feet caught fire.
Today, spectators are so infatuated with science that the Coon case nearly fell because investigators walked in the room, noticed what seemed to have burned the best, figured out what burned first and asked who'd been around last. The most scientific moment was a test on Dr. Grimm's blood, which contained narcotics. The case was, as they acknowledged, circumstantial.
"This isn't some CS crime show," the lead detective, Lewis Ferguson, told Ms. Coon during questioning. Indeed, it was not. But the mention of such shows, more properly called "CSI" for crime scene investigation, was a near fatal error. Jurors, being mortal, watch television, where insoluble crimes are solved within an angstrom unit of certainty by people with perfect hair wielding a fantastic collection of gizmos. The set looks like the sales room at The Sharper Image.
Alas, the investigators trotted before the Coon jury were bald. A few had cell phones, but Judge Jeffrey Manning made everyone turn them off. They had notebooks and written reports. Neither antennae nor the aroma of the Bunsen burner marked their testimony.
The defense presented Carl Natale, a silver-haired lion of science who used terms such as "depth of char analysis" and "fuel load" and spoke of the need to mark a scene off in quadrants and conduct an archeological dig.
"I get that all the time," said John Trkula, the Monroeville detective who helped tree the defendant. "They want blood. They want DNA."
All detectives Trkula and Ferguson could bring to court were common sense, probability and a great story line. That the jury settled for this over a spectrographic analysis and three volumes of calculus is a boon to the soul of anyone fearful that the Great American Murder will devolve from courtroom drama into a doctoral dissertation.
The great event of Thursday last was the triumph of narrative over mathematics. It was as if the laboratory had, if for a moment, been taken over by humanities majors smart enough to use the glassware to mix the perfect martini.
First Published September 24, 2006 12:00 am