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Double Jeopardy – Book Review


by:Bob Hill

Publisher Avon Books

Copyright: 1995

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, January 27, 2005

Summary: A study of the justice system and why not legal system is perfect.

Despite the horrible crime described and the impact of the crime on the family of the victim, what you take away from DOUBLE JEOPARDY is a sense that law is more about form than substance; more about formalities than truth or justice. Yet, in the back of your mind, you suspect and you hope that an objective examination of the facts would always show otherwise, that the legal system, more often than not, stumbles over the threshold of justice. You suspect and hope that form and formalities are that rare exhibition of our legal system when it is confronted with a high profile crime. In those news media saturated cases, the law may seem to act only for itself rather than for society and the victim. The murder of Brenda Sue Schaefer in September 1988 and subsequent murder trial of Melvin Ignatow would be one of these rarities.

Author Bob Hill does an excellent job of reporting events leading up to the murder and the effect the murder has on Schaefer’s family, the entangled efforts of law enforcement to solve the crime, and the eventual prosecution. The fact that Melvin Ignatow “got away with murder”–he was never convicted of the crime–cannot be attributed toany one act on the part of the police or local prosecutors. This is said in spite of the fact that the police seemed rushed to put the cuffs on Ignatow before they found Schaefer’s body and before they had concrete evidence linking him to the murder. The prosecutors who decided to take the case to trial did so based on the “common sense” elements of the circumstantial evidence. Of course, when dealing with such a deranged act as murder of another human being, “common sense” should be the last foundation upon which to base a course of action.

Hill posits two possible causes for the jury looking at the evidence and deciding that Ignatow was innocent. The first is the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him. The jury could not exclude the possibility that Ignatow’s one time girl-friend and confessed assistant in the murder, Mary Ann Shore, was in fact the real murderer. On the witness stand, she did not behave like a woman intimidated into assisting with a murder. Her emotional distance from her words gave the impression that she was callous enough to murder. The second element Hill raises as a possible reason for the jury’s reluctance to convict Ignatow was the jury itself.

One would suppose that the theory behind trial by jury is that a body of peers objectively, without prejudice, examine the facts in a case and render a verdict. That theory is and always has been a fallacy. Jury selection techniques now prove it. Both defense and prosecuting attorneys now spend a considerable amount of time profiling and molding that “body of peers” into what each perceives as a body inclined to side with them. The legal dance of a trial involves excluding or including this or that fact to control the perception of what did or did not happen, with a judge deciding upon relevancy. The Ignatow jury saw Ignatow the defendant as someone other than Melvin Ignatow the person. It is impossible to be objective when you are denied all the facts. It is impossible to be unprejudiced–period. In the reverse logic theory of the law in practice, toss out objectivity and you lessen the possibility of prejudice. In other words, ignorance–read that as blindness–considerably lessens the possibility of prejudice. This is the tight mathematical axiom wherein juries are forced to decide life and death issues. Absent sufficient facts upon which to make objective judgments, the Ignatow jury shifted through what facts it had through the prism of individual prejudices–against the police, the FBI, the prosecutors, the defense attorney, the judge, perhaps the color of the walls in the courtroom–to arrive at the conclusion that Ignatow did not murder Brenda Schaefer.

It is very difficult to fault the jury that found Melvin Ignatow innocent of Brenda Sue Schaefer’s murder. They simply did not have the facts that the police, the attorneys and the judge had. They were prevented from seeing Ignatow as a person; preventing from seeing his behavior as that of a man who could murder and hide the fact behind a constant stream of convincing lies.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY is one of the few true crime genre books that this reviewer considers a “must read”. It is crafted in such a way that the reader can follow the decision-making process of that jury that decided the innocence of Ignatow.

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