Reviewed by Clare Brook
The general public has a fascination with sensational details surrounding murder. There have been many documentaries made to satisfy that curiosity, usually detailing the immediate evidence surrounding the physicality of the crime. I Am a Killer is based on the successful Netflix series of the same name. The aim of this book is not to sensationalize the facts, rather to produce a non-biased picture of the crime from the perspective of all parties involved, including the killers’ childhood experiences. Given that it is not confined to an allotted time frame, the result is a more comprehensive approach than presented on Netflix.
The authors, Danny Tipping and Ned Parker, conducted face-to-face interviews with convicted murderers either on death row or who have been sentenced to life without parole. All of the subjects were in American prisons. America was the natural place to do these studies as the death penalty remains a legal option; also, incarceration rates carry much longer sentences than in most democracies. If a prisoner is on death row, it takes seventeen years on average before execution. This gave time for all concerned to process what happened and why and for the initial interview to be followed up by at least one other some months or years later. All the subjects had pleaded guilty or had been found guilty at their trial and had accepted their guilt.
The cases in this edition were chosen to highlight bigger issues, such as effect of childhood sexual abuse, racial and gender discrimination and how the law can be biased. It can also be seen that childhood poverty and uncaring drug- or alcohol-addicted parents feature as common elements. This work really highlights the flaws of a ‘survival of the fittest’ democracy.
The example of David Barnett is heart rendering, and sadly, typical. Most readers will not comprehend how a child could be treated so poorly. Abandoned by his mother, as a baby he was passed between prostitutes and drug dealers, in his own words: I think I was like a stuffed animal that sat on a shelf and when people wanted me they grabbed me. Eventually ending up in care, he was then adopted by a single middle-aged man, who was physically cruel and sexually abusive, and, who was allowed to adopt two other boys. Social workers visited but were placated by this man’s polished veneer of middle-class respectability. Many attempts to raise the alarm proved fruitless. At one stage, two Polaroid photos were shown to police of naked boys in shower with adopted father. No action was taken. This man’s parents acted as loving grandparents but had no idea what was going on. Evidence was continually presented to the police and social workers over the course of several years but – no action taken. The horror continued until eventually, as an young man, he told his adopted grandparents, who could not believe their son was capable of such heinous behaviour. Not being believed cause David to snap, black out, and in that moment he killed the only people who had shown him unconditional love. When reading all of the details in this case, and there is so much more than discussed here, it is clear that a failure to act, to help children in dire circumstances, created the outcome.
The variables of poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse appear time and time again. Only a few of the cases do not contain these elements but all come from a poor background.
It is said that one way or another we are all socially constructed, to my mind the authors of I Am A Killer have gone a long way to prove the point, and for that reason it is a worthwhile work.
By Danny Tipping & Ned Parker
Pan Macmillan Australia