Truth Meter for Murder: The Interview
“In real-world situations, it’s very difficult to know what the truth is.” – Israeli psychologist Gershon Ben-Shahar
By Stephanie Dickinson
At the heart of Razor Wire Wilderness, my recently launched true crime memoir, stands Krystal Riordan, then a 20-year-old prostitute who witnessed a horrific murder, and now a 35-year-old inmate. In July 2006, at the end of a hot, steamy night, her 36-year-old pimp/boyfriend Draymond Coleman brought Jennifer Moore, a teenage girl stranded after a night of underage drinking, to the seedy Weehawken, New Jersey hotel room that the two shared. Krystal saw her boyfriend punch Jennifer when she refused his sexual advances and then continued to watch the escalating violence, the beating, the strangling, and the rape. Was she a willing accomplice, or was she too a victim? Draymond Coleman pled guilty to first-degree murder and received a 50-year sentence. His release date: January 23, 2049. Krystal pled guilty to kidnapping and hindering apprehension and received a 30-year sentence. Her release date: October 25, 2027.
Now, almost 15 years later, the question remains unanswered. Perpetrator or victim? Was she a willing accomplice, or was she too a victim? Or was she both accomplice and victim? Perhaps it’s not the right question or series of questions. Draymond Coleman refuses to be interviewed, although he occasionally writes Krystal: You never turned your back on me. You’re where you are because of my stupidity. And then most disconcerting: Even after our arrest your letters were always –I love you, I love you, I love you… What truth lies behind those words? Or the following from Krystal: I froze. I thought I would be next. Does truth smell like sweat and Clorox? He snapped, and then he snapped back. The sweat of the murderer and the Clorox used to wipe DNA from the body. I froze.
Finding the truth for the writer is ultimately not the same as the truth-seeking done by the police or by a prosecuting attorney; the writer is looking for a more nuanced truth, something that works toward explaining the inexplicable. Often those who know the perpetrator, the character witnesses, are interviewed not to corroborate evidence but to shift the focus, to introduce us to the variegated person they know, to render a fuller, more intimate picture. Draymond babysat for my daughter. He was a big teddy bear. For more substantiation, the police reports are scrutinized. Police look for certainty in either the circumstantial evidence or a confession that will lead to a conviction. Writers want to know what lies behind the corroborated, adjudicated truth. The interior, the unadorned, the bone truth.
How are we to interview an inmate about the crime they were sentenced for? Must they exonerate themselves to themselves? Are they running through a mental checklist of what and who they have revealed the truth to? It matters less how we interview the subject, whether in person or via video/audio or email, than providing a safe emotional space that puts our subject at ease. Krystal, my subject, is an eyewitness as well as a perpetrator. She underwent 14 hours of initial interrogation. Eye-witness testimony often leads not to truth but to misidentification and falsehood. The Innocence Project points out that inaccurate eye-witness testimony is the leading cause of false convictions. We are running up against the notorious tricks of memory. Perhaps the telling and re-telling opens the door to creating false memories.
Can we believe that she was remorseful? Not after viewing the video. She left the room at will numerous times. –Candida Moore, Victim Impact Statement
The grainy hotel video captures Krystal leaving the murder room on numerous occasions. I always did what he told me to do. I was weak-minded. No one who witnessed the crime is independent. The video camera turns out to be the most credible witness, free of bias and emotion. The truth meter grapples with I saw it with own eyes. Human memory is porous, the holes plugged with filler. Experts tell us we can’t possibly take in all the minutia around us, so the brain fills in the details.
Trauma degrades the clarity of memory. I was mugged inside my building and afterward I rode with the police through the neighborhood looking for the perpetrators. I had described two men, the taller one wearing a red sweatshirt. On the police radio we learned that two men had been apprehended after another mugging, minutes after mine had occurred, and were being held on Greenwich Avenue by the arresting officers. The taller man stood under the streetlights, and I saw he wore a brown jacket not a red sweatshirt. Instead, he had on red sweatpants. The chrome handgun tossed into the bushes linked the men to a series of muggings, including mine. Why had I been so sure of the red sweatshirt? The men had pushed me down in the stairwell and I was at eye level with the red sweatpants. I saw red. But what if someone’s future depended wholly on the accuracy of that red sweatshirt?
The interview, including the self-interview has always fascinated me, in its many hybrid forms. I conducted a fictional interview with a noir actress from the 1960s in my book Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg. (New Michigan Press). Seemingly chronological, the questions evolved into something more circular, i.e., the actress interrogating herself and colliding with the existential question of whether or not you can even know your own truth. My friend Andrew Kaufman’s poetry collection The Rwanda Poems will soon appear and since he had conducted extensive face-to-face interviews in Rwanda with a number of genocide survivors, rape victims, perpetrators falsely accused, and perpetrators convicted of horrifically murderous acts, I asked him about his technique. Considering he spoke to both victims and perpetrators, was the testimony itself the sought-after truth? The speech? Did his approach differ when it came to perpetrators? He approached both initially the same in a kind of getting-acquainted approach, asking about the subject’s childhood, family, life experiences, school, work, and favorite activities. Then, in the case of perpetrators, the questions would narrow, becoming more pointed and specific.
Perhaps we should all try interviewing exercises, a self-interview, we become our own mock lie detectors. We can look at memory not as something fixed, but a fluidity, often a matter of perception.
In reviewing my first letters to Krystal I discovered that my technique and Andrew’s initially followed a similar path. Tell me about yourself: What is your favorite color? Do you like animals? What kind of music do you listen to? What are your favorite foods? I, then, told her all my favorites.
Later, I could ask
Q: I know you and Draymond have a child together. Do you have any contact with the child?
Q: Did having a child with him, make it difficult for you to testify against him?
Q: Could Jennifer have left the room alive if she had stopped resisting Draymond?
A: Jennifer was no match for Draymond.
Q: Did Jennifer walk into the room willingly or did Draymond carry her in?
A: Jennifer was doing cocaine.
I questioned the validity of both answers. In Jennifer’s last cell phone call to her boyfriend, she states: “A man keeps following me, and he’s offering me drugs.” What I don’t question in Krystal’s answers are the deeper truths about her inner world that her few words reveal. In the beginning, I could not fathom how a young woman who had the ability to leave the murder room would not run for help. Now I understand, I do not condone or excuse, and it is not my place to forgive. Through interviews, I know Krystal both as perpetrator and victim. Never did she consider testifying against her ex-boyfriend, the now-convicted murderer. Although Draymond Coleman has promised on numerous occasions to give his statement to exonerate Krystal, he never has.
Stephanie Dickinson, raised on an Iowa farm, now lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and their senior citizen feline, Vallejo. Her novels “Half Girl” and “Lust Series” are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir “Love Highway.” Other books include “Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg” (New Michigan Press); “Flashlight Girls Run” (New Meridian Arts Press); “The Emily Fables” (ELJ Press); and “Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself” (Alien Buddha). She has published poetry and prose in literary journals including Cherry Tree, The Bitter Oleander, Mudfish, Another Chicago Magazine, Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, The Columbia Review, Orca and Gargoyle, among others. Her stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South, New Stories from the Midwest, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She received distinguished story citations in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays and numerous Pushcart anthology citations. In 2020, she won the Bitter Oleander Poetry Book Prize with her “Blue Swan/Black Swan: The Trakl Diaries.” To support the holy flow, she has long labored as a word processor for a Fifth Avenue accounting firm.