True crime (part 1)

True crime (part 1) February 20, 2022

I’m not usually a “true crime” guy, but Jason Morphew got me sucked in to the case involving his cousin, who faces a first-degree murder trial in May.

This is exactly the kind of made-for-Dateline story that network and cable TV news loves to run with, making them national stories even though they’re really just local news with little broader import. Suzanne Morphew was a wealthy, attractive, white woman married to a wealthy, attractive, white man. They lived in a massive, beautiful home. She drove a Range Rover, he drove a $60,000 pickup truck and a Porsche. Keith Morrison voice: To all outward appearances, they were living the American Dream.

Screengrab from CBS’ “48 Hours”

Then Suzanne disappeared on the day before Mother’s Day, 2020. Her body has never been found and Barry Morphew has now been accused of murdering his wife.

This all happened in the small town of Salida, Colorado, and it’s a big, big news story in rural Chafee County, Colorado. But there’s no reason it should be news at all anywhere else.

It reminds me of the Scott Peterson case from the early 2000s. I was working in a newsroom at the time for the largest newspaper in Delaware, 3,000 miles away from Modesto, California, where seven-months pregnant Laci Peterson had disappeared. There were dozens of local murder cases for our paper to report on, cases in which people who lived right there in Delaware were killed by people who lived there too. That was news: One of your neighbors was killed. One of your neighbors was a killer. But the Peterson story had no local angle, no reason it should be of any more significance to our readers than any of the thousands of other murders that had also taken place in the thousands of miles between our readers and the suburbs of California on the opposite coast.

Yet we still ran AP wire stories featuring regular updates on every new development in the Peterson investigation. The local angle, I suppose, was that tens of thousands of people in Delaware were following this story on CNN, where it was the focus of breathless saturation coverage every day. Another part of the reason we did that, I think, is because it was an intriguing story — a real-life whodunit with compelling victims and villains that our readers enjoyed speculating about and arguing over.

And readers do enjoy these stories. There’s an unseemly delight that we humans often take from hearing such news. A sweet young mother-to-be disappears and her decomposing body is later found on the beach — Ooh! Wonderful! Tell us more! Stories like that allow us to savor all the lurid details while also indulging in the anti-kitten-burning endorphin rush of imagining that our disapproval of the crime confirms our own righteousness. I, personally, would never murder a pregnant woman and dump her body in the ocean. I, for one, think that sort of thing is just wrong.

Such stories invite us to luxuriate in this extravagant moral disapproval while, simultaneously, inviting us to imagine all the clever ways we might have gotten away with the crime. We can flatter ourselves both with the knowledge that we would never, ever do such a monstrous thing and with the thought that, if we had, we’d have been more careful to cover our steps, to concoct a more plausible alibi, or to strike a more believable pose as the innocent grieving spouse.

Another weird aspect of these Dateline-style local stories that become national stories is the way they seem to exist outside of the fear-mongering hysteria that periodically makes “crime” or “violent crime” a political weapon for demagogues. That politicized narrative is almost always racialized with all the subtlety of a Frank Rizzo campaign speech and all the fevered dishonesty of Birth of a Nation. The message is almost always that white people should be afraid of Black people, and that therefore Black people’s votes shouldn’t count like white people’s do and, if you think about it, that we probably should never have ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and should therefore only vote for people who promise to appoint judges who will ignore them.

This politicized demagoguery about “the issue of violent crime” is meticulously crafted to make it appear racial, when it’s very much not. But it’s also just as meticulously crafted to distract us from noticing that violent crime is massively gendered.

Back at that paper in Delaware, I was often tasked with proofing page B3 — the “crime” page in our local section. One of our slot editors referred to it as the “Men Doing Horrible Things To Women” page, and that bit of newsroom gallows humor was a revelation. That was never quite the whole of it, but it was always a big chunk of what we were reporting there. The who, what, when, where, and how of those stories was, very often, just exactly that: Men Doing Horrible Things To Women.

But that is never, ever, the framing used by “tough on crime” political demagogues campaigning on “law and order.” Nor is it ever the framing used by tabloid hacks and cable news producers chasing ratings with “If it bleeds, it leads.” The politics of crime never seems to include criminals like Scott Peterson or Barry Morphew (allegedly). Their stories aren’t part of the narrative of crime. They’re just presented as entertainment. (Even Fox News reports these cases this way, as sordid entertainment wholly unrelated to the propaganda network’s otherwise relentless efforts to use “crime” to foster rabid white resentment.)

The tragic story of Barry and Suzanne Morphew has more twists and turns than the Peterson case. It seems that both may have been having extramarital affairs. And, although Barry was recorded dumping contractor bags full of something in half a dozen dumpsters scattered around the Denver area the day Suzanne disappeared, her body has never been found. The prosecution’s case against Barry Morphew is largely circumstantial, lacking a clear smoking gun or confession.

Granted, the circumstantial evidence that Mr. Morphew shot his wife with a tranquilizer dart and kicked in a door after chasing her around the house may make it difficult to suggest an alternative explanation, but it’s still circumstantial evidence. His lack of an alibi — and the collapse of his comically inept “shooting chipmunks” alibi — is not, in itself, evidence of his guilt. And while there may be character witnesses lining up to offer variations of “Aw, geez, we always worried he’d do something like this,” none of those witnesses has yet offered evidence confirming that Barry Morphew killed his wife.

Which brings us back to Barry’s cousin, writing for the Daily Beast,My Cousin Allegedly Killed His Wife and Cast Her Vote for Trump.”

Go read that. Then come on back here so we can talk about it.


Browse Our Archives

Close Ad