How to Get Away With Murder

How to Get Away With Murder
Screenshot:60 Minutes

The F.B.I. doesn’t know her name, but they do know that she’s dead. She may have been named Marianne or Mary Anne. She may have been 18 or 19 when she was murdered. She may have been murdered in 1971 or 1972. Her body may be decaying somewhere in the empty western edges of South Florida’s swampland, but they aren’t sure, not really, about any of it.

What the F.B.I. does know is who they think killed her. Samuel Little, recently dubbed America’s “most prolific serial killer,” has confessed to her murder, along with some 93 others, and all the details of her existence are only what he remembers. He says he met her once in Overtown, a once-thriving black Miami neighborhood born of segregation and later devastated by racism. She lived with roommates and drove a gold Pontiac LeMans. He took her to buy a can of shaving cream in that car. He strangled her in that car. Later he used that car to dump her body in the Everglades.

He told the F.B.I. that she was a black, transgender woman (though the FBI coldly identifies her as a “black male”) and, like most of Little’s victims, she was, as the New York Times notes, “vulnerable and overlooked.” She is what the F.B.I. describes as an “unmatched confession,” meaning there are no existing police reports or missing person reports that law enforcement can use to identify her.

They were the easiest lives to take without consequences.

On the F.B.I.’s website, Marianne is represented only by a portrait drawn by Little—dark eyes, red lips, her hair held neatly behind a blue and gray band. She is part of Little’s gallery of the dead, made after he was given art supplies. These portraits are supposed to be clues, but perhaps the most telling clue is the kind of women depicted in Little’s eerie portraits. They are women like Marianne; sex workers, drug users, disabled women, and black women. Women who are far more likely to be victims of violent crime; women who are far less likely to report assault and sexual violence; women who are likely to be victimized by the police.

There are virtually no names, just pinpoints on a map, a few guesses at age, and races. A woman murdered in Little Rock, more in Miami, a woman in Las Vegas; women in Louisiana and Central Florida, in Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and Kentucky. Little left dead women across America, abandoned their bodies off highways and in empty fields and muddy canals. They were—and are—women who law enforcement does not notice. For many, their disappearances were never reported, their absences were never official. For others, they were simply undefended because their worth was too low on the hierarchy of value. Their disappearance garnered little outrage, or at least not outrage from communities worth the front page of a newspaper or the attention of law enforcement. They were the easiest lives to take without consequences.

But still, the narrative of the cunning but brutal, smart but cruel serial killer has already coalesced around Little, with almost equal awe reserved for the man who elicited his confessions. It’s a story ready-made for a Netflix prestige drama—the dynamic strikes as pure entertainment, conjured up to conceal the mundane reality of Little’s success. But the story is less the spectacular workings of a genius serial killer who evaded law enforcement and the justice-seeking lawman, and more a familiarly grim story about the ease of enacting violence against women who are often perceived not to matter.

The Los Angeles Times profile of Texas Ranger James Holland, the man who elicited confession and confession from Little, portrays him as a plain man—a good man—simply out for justice. He wears a cowboy hat and boots as he stands in front of an office wall turned museum covered with Little’s portraits (it was Holland’s idea to give Little art supplies so that he could paint his victims). But Little, Holland assures, isn’t just “sick,” he’s also an “absolute genius.” Such a binary only enhances Holland’s accomplishment—Little is no ordinary killer, but a skilled one. He is unique and his crimes are more than just a reflection of a biased justice system.

The dynamic of good, smart cop and the evil but brilliant killer is a familiar trope, one reiterated in a recent 60 Minutes segment. Holland has a “swagger that would make John Wayne envious,” the correspondent swoons, and coaxes confession after confession from Little. Holland indulges his ego but gains the upper hand, earning the serial killer’s trust. After ominously noting that Little went “undetected for half a century,” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi asks Holland: “So how did he skip by so long?” Holland responds that Little was “good at what he did,” before describing him as “cunning,” “wicked smart,” and “a genius.” The segment quickly notes that Little “preyed [on] prostitutes, drug addicts, women he believed the police wouldn’t work too hard to find,” before returning to the story of a genius serial killer and the swaggering Ranger who outsmarted him.

But this isn’t quite true: Little didn’t evade capture, he stumbled into it constantly.

But this isn’t quite true: Little didn’t evade capture, he stumbled into it constantly. Repeatedly, over decades, he was arrested, brought to trial, and dismissed for violent crimes against women. He spent years in jail for crimes from theft to sexual assault before his 2014 conviction for three murders in California. In 1979, he was arrested after Pamela Kay Smith was found banging on the door of a St. Louis home. Smith, according to reports, was half-naked, her hands bound with an electrical cord. Little was captured shortly after and Smith’s clothes were found in his car. He served only three months for “attempt to ravish-rape.” Reports identify Smith as a “drug addict,” and the original case report describes her as a “heroin addict” who often failed to appear in court. In 1984, Little was tried in Alachua County, Florida for the murder of Patricia Ann Mount but was acquitted by the jury (Little has since confessed to Mount’s murder). According to the Gainesville Sun, Mount was a “resident of Sunland Training Center, now called Tacachale, a state facility for the developmentally disabled. She reportedly had an IQ of 40.”

Those aren’t the only two times he caught the eye of local police, he was arrested in 1982, charged with murder, as well as assaulting two sex workers. USA Today notes that the grand jury declined to indict, likely because both victims and witnesses were sex workers. In 1984, Little strangled two more sex workers, both of whom survived. Though one of the women was found unconscious in his car, he pleaded to a lesser charge and served minimal time in jail. And then there was Angela Chapman, a sex worker found in a Miami-Dade County field in 1976, who was among Little’s confessions. Buried in a report from the Miami Herald from the same year are telling details:

She had red, sandy blonde hair, was approximately five feet two, weighed 100 pounds, wore a red tube top and had a spoon ring on her right hand. No cause of death was apparent, Metro homicide detectives said.

But the homicide detectives weren’t being quite truthful. They had found a woman in a field, but there was an apparent cause of death. The Miami Herald reported decades later that the county medical examiner at the time had determined that she had been strangled.

And yet, despite this, Little has already been labeled a genius of sorts, even though his “genius” was simply exploiting a legal system that has no interest in protecting marginalized women. This is, perhaps, a more appealing story, one about good and evil, genius and cunning, than one that acknowledges that justice is rarely—if ever—reserved for marginal women. The truth of Little is he killed women authorities did not care about, and he got away with murder.

True crime narratives love a good murder, but the creation of those stories relies on the right victim—a good girl, an able woman, a young woman, a white woman. The Ted Bundys and Dennis Raders loom large in our cultural consciousness because they killed the right kinds of women. Bundy killed sorority girls and nice college girls—white women whose value was self-evident. (Though it’s worth noting that Bundy too was aided by old-fashioned sexism. After Lynda Healy disappeared, police did nothing because they believed the blood soaking her mattress was menstrual blood.) And Rader murdered entire families in their safe, suburban homes where police attention and justice are not merely expected, but natural.

The truth of Little is he killed women authorities did not care about, and he got away with murder.

The F.B.I. and Holland are interested in Little now because—as they have both stated—they are seeking justice: Justice for the victims; justice for the families. But what would justice look like for these marginalized women? Is justice a confession and a closed case? Justice remains a formless, abstract concept. Four black transwomen have been murdered in Dallas since 2015. Fifty-one black women have been murdered in Chicago over the span of 20 years and their murders remain unsolved. Nine elderly women had to die at a Dallas-area retirement home before suspicions of a serial killer were raised. Daniel Holtzclaw raped dozens of black women, many with arrests for prostitution or drug use, before anyone believed them.

Little’s crimes are not unique, nor are they work of genius. Instead, the story of a brilliant, elusive serial killer turns the narrative even further away from the victims. It does not interrogate the value of their lives and offers only the spectacle of brilliance where there is none. It limits justice to a shaky confession decades later, emphasizing the speech of a killer over the lives of victims who continue to be pushed to the margins of their own story, overshadowed by true crime narratives that have little consideration for vulnerable women, but have boundless room for genius. There will be more Littles and there will be more Mariannes.

Little strangled Marianne in the back of her Pontiac LeMans and he dumped her body in the Everglades, but long before he met her, she had already been pushed to the margins, turned into his ideal victim.

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