Author of The Count and the Confession: A True Mystery
by Bella Stander
Scene: A phony Polish aristocrat who sells forged art is found shot dead on a couch at his estate outside Richmond, Va., an apparent suicide. Cast of characters: His gentle lady friend, aka "Mouse"; her feisty attorney daughter; the Other Woman, pregnant with the dead man's child. Then there's the hardboiled police detective who convinces Mouse that she repressed her memory of being at the crime scene-and thus gets her convicted of murder, even though she subsequently recants her taped "confession."
Sound like the setup for a juicy poolside novel? Perhaps, but the above is fact, not fiction. And though it may not be a glitzy potboiler, The Count and the Confession: A True Mystery (Random House) by John Taylor is a compelling and cautionary tale about our criminal justice system. As noted in the June/July Albemarle, Beverly (Mouse) Monroe was recently released on appeal after serving seven years in prison for the murder of Roger de la Burde. I called Taylor at his home office on Long Island to learn how a veteran New York journalist with no Virginia ties got caught up in a local story.
It all began when Taylor saw an article in the New York Times about Beverly Monroe appealing her case in the federal courts. "I was intrigued by several aspects of it," he recalls, "the most prominent being that this woman could have confessed and implicated herself in a crime, then turned around and said she didn't do it." Monroe's daughter Katie sent him the 300-page habeas corpus petition and 300 pages of exhibits. "By the time I finished reading all that," says Taylor, "I realized that I'd stumbled on an incredibly fascinating story."
"What interested me was that it was a mystery. No one involved in the case really knew for certain what had actually happened. Katie Monroe and her mother were convinced she was innocent, but they didn't know whether Roger de la Burde had committed suicide or been killed by someone else. The original investigator decided it was a suicide, then changed his mind and decided it was a homicide. The police had a list of suspects, but the strongest evidence pointed to Beverly Monroe-yet they said it was possible he had killed himself."
Taylor admits, "My first exposure to the case was all this evidence that pointed to Beverly's innocence. But the more I investigated, the more I began to see why she had been convicted, whether innocent or guilty." Amazingly, despite Katie being a lawyer, Monroe agreed to be questioned by police without an attorney. Her statements were then used to convict her. "The police thought that she was so na´ve it had to be an act," says Taylor. "Because she was a trusting person she got involved in a situation that was just disastrous."
One reason for writing The Count and the Confession was that Taylor had come to believe that Monroe was innocent, and thought the book could help get her out of prison. "I didn't want to be like Truman Capote, who spent four years waiting for these guys to be hanged so he could write the final chapter of In Cold Blood. So we decided to go ahead and publish the book, even though the case was unresolved." But just as Random House was sending out advance copies this spring, there was an astonishing development in Monroe's case. "My editor sent an email saying, 'Stop the Presses!'" Taylor then reported and wrote a new 11-page ending in just 10 days. "It was very exciting," he confesses. "I had done that kind of adrenaline-induced deadline writing when I was a political correspondent at New York magazine."
What's the biggest lesson Taylor learned? "Never go to a police station without a lawyer," he says, laughing. "Everything that happened to Beverly Monroe is an object lesson in cynicism. It never pays to trust people." Another lesson: "Whether or not you wind up in prison can depend almost entirely upon the personality and values of the judge." Then thank goodness for juries! "The jury system is just as scary in its own way," counters Taylor. "It's the worst system in the world-except for all the others."
© 2002 Bella Stander