As I write this, I’m sitting on the floor outside of a courtroom as a jury deliberates somewhere in this building on the fate of a guy whose trial I’ve been covering since Oct. 2. It’s been a long time since I covered a trial — I haven’t been a news reporter since the mid-90s. I was an editor for nearly three decades after that, though, and guided a lot of trial coverage and edited a lot of trial stories.
From my observations, there are a lot of things I can say about how journalism has changed — and not for the better — when it comes to what the public reads about a trial these days. But that’s a blog post for another day. The details of this trial are also too long and complicated for me to get into here for the most part. [If you want to read about it, you can find my coverage at Manchester Ink Link. Do a search on there for Logan Clegg. Or me. There’s no paywall.] I’m writing this on a Friday, the first day of deliberations. You are reading it on Tuesday. It’s possible there’s been a verdict in between. This is written without knowing the verdict, obviously, but any verdict doesn’t have an impact on what is written here.
In brief, Djeswende and Stephen Reid, two very nice people in their 60s, were walking in the woods near their Concord, New Hampshire, apartment on April 18, 2022, when someone shot them. Their family reported them missing April 20, 2022, and their bodies were found, about 50 yards off the trail and covered by a pile of leaves and other woodland detritus on April 21, 2022. Logan Clegg, a young man with a criminal past who’d been living in the woods all winter, was arrested after police spent months figuring out who he was and tracked him down to where he was living, in a tent in Vermont, two days before he was due to get on a one-way flight to Germany.
You often hear people say “You can’t make this up! If this were a mystery novel no one would believe it!” My response is always that people who say that must not read many mystery novels. This crime would make a good one, with a lot of details and elements that are perfect for setting up a real mystery. In real life, though, that doesn’t always make for the perfect trial and conclusion.
I spent nearly 40 years as a journalist. I’ve spent the past 10 or so as a mystery novelist, too. It’s interesting how the two interesected and gave me perspective. I think my mystery writer mind definitely helped the journalist one. But it also helped frustrate it. There’s so much you can say in a work of fiction to get bigger truths across that you can’t say in a news article.
Before we get to the bigger truths, there were definitely little things that would play out differently in a mystery novel. An example: Someone — presumably the killer or killers — poured baking soda on top of the debris piled on the Reids’ bodies. This was likely an attempt to mask any odors [pro tip: it wouldn’t have worked]. It rained heavily the night after they were shot, so it’s likely it was done sometime closer to when they were found three days later, or it would’ve dissolved in the rain. In a mystery novel, this would’ve been a signfificant clue. In real life, it was just another thing that came up and didn’t have a lot of signficance.
Another instance was a surreal afternoon the same day as opening statements. Though I did write about it in my article, my head kept playing with how it would work as a scene in a book. How often, as a fiction writer, does someone get a chance to participate in something like this?
Clegg, the judge, a bunch of cops and the media took a trip to the trail in the woods where the shootings happened and walked it. The only time I’ve ever been on one of those was nearly 40 years ago, and it wasn’t a hike on a trail, it was a visit to a meadow. That time, the defendant wore jailhouse orange and was shackled. This time Clegg, in his trial clothes of blue shirt and black pants, and carrying a water bottle on an unseasonably hot day, could’ve been anyone. One of his attorneys stuck by his side, and law enforcement was obvoiusly there to keep an eye on him, but they didn’t stand right next to him. At some points, I found myself next to him, but moved away. It’s not that I didn’t feel safe, I just didn’t want to invade his space or get yelled at by the court clerk. Weeks later, it occurs to me that’s the only time the jury got to see him as a regular person.
Big picture, this is a case with a boatload of reasonable doubt. The only thing that ties the defendant to the crime — possibly — is a pair of bullet casings that mysteriously turned up near the shooting scene a month after it happened. Yes, the shooting was in the woods, where there were a lot of “leaves and sticks” as everyone kept saying. But sniffer dogs, metal detectors and investigators combing through all that detritus didn’t turn them up in the weeks before they were found.
Then, suddenly, an assistant attorney general, visiting the crime scene for the first time, was kind of just looking around, looked down, and in a Hercule Poirot moment, said, “Hello! What is this?!” At least that’s how I picture it. What he really said was something like, “Hey Wade [one of the investigators], you wanna take a look at this!”
Months later, when Logan Clegg was arrested, he was in possession of a gun that, according to the state ballistics expert, shot bullets that matched those casings.
During the trial, Wade Brown, the detective, demonstrated that one of the “bullet casings” could also be seen if you zoomed in deeply on a photo the FBI took from a distance of the general scene on May 10, 2022, ten days before the casings were found. Then, on one of the last days of the trial, while the defense was presenting its case, a Concord police detective, apparently watching the trial on streaming while also going through photos from the day after the bodies were found, saw what he also believed was the bullet casing.
The whole thing was designed for a novel or TV. Last minute surprise evidence! This “discovery” came right before the defense was going to call a forensic digital photo analyst to testify. The state had earlier fought against him being allowed to be used as an expert, but that motion never got traction after the judge said that the state really couldn’t make much of a case against the guy, who was heavily credentialed [my words, not the judge’s], when they were using cops with no experience in forensic photo analysis to say there were casings in photos.
In a brief, but dramatic, hearing with the jury out of the room, the defense made a case that the April 22 photo shouldn’t be allowed. They were right, in my view. The judge thought differently. He allowed it. The defense, despite their obvious unhappiness in the moment, then put on two days of testimony that decimated the prosecution’s case for the bullet casings having been there before May 20.
In a book or a TV show that would have been a defining moment in the trial. For anyone paying attention, it should’ve been, too. It was a riveting display of lawyers turning on a dime and putting on a pitch-perfect defense to close out their case.
Their forensic photo analyst didn’t spend a lot of time on the April 22 photo, since he’d only seen it an hour before he testified. He spent a lot of time, though, comparing the May 20 photo of the bullet casings after the assistant attorney general found them to the May 10 FBI zoomed-in photo. The expert concluded convincingly that it wasn’t a casing at all in the FBI photo, or the April 22 one.
The defense the next morning put a Fish and Game officer on the stand whose ballistics sniffer dog Cora had searched the area April 22, 2022, and hadn’t found a bullet casing. She is trained to find anything with gunpowder on it, and she did find a bullet fragment that was definitely related to the case [more on this later].
Then they put on the cop who “saw” the casing in the April 22, 2022, photo the day before. Defense attorney Caroline Smith didn’t spend any time on the photo, but for more than an hour walked the cop, who seemed eager to please, through all of his searches of that area, including the exact spot where the two casings were later found, in the days and weeks after the shootings. Then they put on another cop, a little less eager to please, who’d also searched the area extensively, but didn’t find a bullet casing. Or two. This guy had also put up a game camera on April 23, 2022, that would’ve caught anyone planting those casings in the weeks following, but it just never seemed to work or collect any images, even though they tried to fix it at some point. Anyone writing a mystery novel could’ve had a field day with that.
Of course, this was real life. There wasn’t enough information about the malfunctioning game camera in testimony for the jury or anyone else to determine if it was really malfunctioning, and the investigators just didn’t feel like it was important enough to fix [they’d been hoping the shooter would return to the area], or if there was something more hinky involved. In my mind, you ‘d think they’d want to put one up that they were sure worked. Just saying.
In the end, the excellent defense performance was probably lost on everyone but the lawyers in the room and the one journalist (me!) who was paying attention. [That’s not a big brag from my massive ego, BTW — the only other print/digital journalist in the courtroom left before the motion hearing on the April 22 photo. She read a book during most of the defense case following it. Other reporters, I assume, watched on streaming, since they had articles every day. I didn’t read them, but from what little I saw they seemed to miss a lot. This isn’t to blow my own horn — it doesn’t take any special talent or skill to sit on your ass from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., pay attention and take notes. Like any decent writing, it’s just hard work, tenacity and critical thinking skills. I’ll let you draw whatever conclusions you will.]
Maybe the casings were there all along. I don’t think they were. As a mystery writer, though, I’m thinking, who would plant them? The police? The only problem is that a month after the shootings, they still had no leads. They didn’t know that months later they’d arrest someone with a Glock 9mm pistol and Sig Sauer 9mm bullets that matched the casings. They did find more casings, in August 2022, from a Glock, elsewhere in the woods, but they hadn’t found anything like that in May. The one bullet and fragments they were able to retrieve from the victims and the scene when the bodies were found weren’t in good enough shape to determine what kind they were.
My mystery writer theory was that someone, maybe not even related to the case, had picked up the casings at some point, either after the shootings or from Clegg’s tent site where police months later found 18 casings. The person, either to be helpful or to be an asshole, planted them at the shooting site. In the end, making sure a working game camera was installed would’ve helped the police tremendously if the casings hadn’t been planted. It sure wouldn’t have helped if they had though, since they were the only slim piece of evidence tying Logan Clegg to the shootings.
Of course, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. If investigators had known what kind of gun was used, you bet your ass I’d think the police could’ve planted the casings. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but we’ve seen it time and time again in wrongful convictions. I’m not saying all police plant evidence. Of course not. But that doesn’t mean some of them, when they’re having trouble making a case, don’t. I read an awesome book by Lawrence O’Donnell, DEADLY FORCE, about his father’s involvement as a laywer in a race-based case in Boston decades ago, and the cops actually had a gun they carried around to plant at scenes of shootings. You can make this stuff up in a mystery novel, but yeah, it happens in real life, too. People just want to believe it’s still fiction.
The presumption of guilt
If this were a mystery novel and not real life, Clegg would be the ultimate red herring. A guy who did everyting wrong and was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. In real life, red herrings sometimes get convicted. Someone asked me last week, “Well, if he didn’t do it, who did?” If he didn’t do it, we’ll likely never know who did. Once police focused on the mysterious guy in the woods, the guy who gave them a false name when they stumbled upon him while they were looking for the Reids, that’s where the investigation went.
The benefit of a mystery novel over real life is that the writer must put other possible suspects in, or it’s not fair play with the reader. Readers know that the most obvious suspect usually isn’t the killer, because the author is making him an obvious suspect. That’s part of writing a suspenseful novel. You guys all know the drill.
In real life, though, the obvious suspect is usually the one who is arrested and convicted. Prosecutors come up with a theory, the evidence that best fits that theory is what the jury gets to hear.
Which brings me to another unpopular observation. While we make a big deal out of “innocent until proven guilty,” and the jury vows to go by that presumption, the whole nature of the courtroom, at least the one I’ve spent October in, supports a presumption of guilt.
The family of the Reids, who’ve undergone one of the worst things a family can endure, sits feet from the jury. At some point in the early days of the trial someone put a box of Kleenex in a prominent spot on the railing in front of them and it’s been there ever since. No one, that I’ve seen, has used it, but it signals to the jury — again, feet away — these people have a lot to cry about. They do, yes. But it’s just one little prop in the many ways the line between the tragic circumstances and presumption of innocence blurs. The message is that the man who made these people suffer is sitting right over there. Jurors, do you really want to cause them more pain by finding him not guilty?
Of course, the prosecutors believe the defendant is guilty, or they wouldn’t be going through this. But the courtroom setup and atmosphere is clearly us vs. them. You’re either on the prosecution side — he’s guilty! — or you’re against the family. The family is tied inexorably to the prosecution. They are accompanied by a victim advocate who works for the attorney general’s office. They sit right behind the prosecution table every single day. Several law enforcement prosecution witnesses nodded to both as they walked by after their testimony.
I’m not blaming the family at all — they’ve suffered an uncountable loss, one that’s theirs to endure for the rest of their lives. But a message is clear from day one that makes it hard for a jury to separate that from the fact that if they vote to acquit, they’re hurting these people further.
The prosecutors, too, sit feet away from the jury. During the defense case last week, I saw them on occasion whisper and smile, sometimes chuckling, with each other during the defense’s direct testimony. The message to the jury? This isn’t important to us. We aren’t worried about this. You shouldn’t be either.
As a journalist, I sit on the defense side, mostly because there’s more room. Partly because I’m neutral, and since we have to pick a side, I’m going to pick presume innocence. But it’s also easier to see the jury, defendent and both sets of lawyers from that vantage point. During testimony I scan the room — the lawyers, the family, the defendant — for reactions. I didn’t see the defense, who were in my line of site to the witness stand, laugh or smile once during the two weeks of the prosecution case.
My vantage point also means I spent three weeks sitting a few rows behing Logan Clegg, looking at his painfully thin shoulders and shoulder blades, outlined by the blue shirt, then later a gray sweater, that he wore every day. At one point, one of his lawyers straightened his inside-out collar. I wondered how often in his life someone had taken even that little bit of care with him. It wasn’t part of the theater of the courtroom. The jury’s eyes were on the witness box and their vantage point isn’t one where the gesture would’ve been obvious. The jury that is considering whether to send him to prison for much of the rest of his life isn’t in a spot where they can see him as a person, the way they see the victims’ family sitting just feet away.
Telling a bigger truth in fiction
The opinions that I’ve written about here aren’t anything that I’ve put in a news story, of course. But they are things I can use as a mystery writer to tell a bigger truth. Anyone who’s read my Bernadette O’Dea mystery series knows that I’m not always easy on the cops, [except, of course, the excellent Redimere, Maine, police chief and some members of that department]. There’s a reason for that. In my long experience as a journalist, and also with six decades as a human being under my belt, I’ve seen how people are willing to take the police narrative for granted, when it’s not always the full story, or the accurate story. Police affadavits are the first, and often only, information the public has about the evidence in a case. Affadavits are used to get an arrest warrant, but that doesn’t mean they’re always accurate or complete. The investigators’ story is then the one told in the courtroom. In many cases [not necessarily this one], the police cultivate the victims’ families during the investigation, convincing them that the person they think is a suspect is the one who did it long before he or she is charged. Even sometimes when the person never is charged.
I was bothered when another reporter in the courtroom, in coversations with me, made references to “when Clegg” did this or that, like “poured baking soda on the pile,” rather than when “the killer” did. It shows that even some journalists covering a trial don’t take presumption of innocence seriously.
Very good dogs get their due
During testimony in this trial, the police fudged things in little ways. I had to laugh at one of the fudges, because it’s something that my sister Rebecca and I discuss on our podcast Crime & Stuff a lot: They never, ever want to give sniffer dogs credit. I mentioned this to another reporter as it happened, as she insisted everyone on the stand always tells the complete truth. Um, no. [Some other blog post maybe I’ll talk about testilying.]
In closing arguments, defense attorney Mariana Dominguez said that, in this case, police didn’t give Cora the sniffer dog credit for finding the bullet fragment at the crime scene the day after the bodies were found, because she also never found those crazy elusive shell casings. If police gave Cora credit for finding the bullet fragment, then the jury would realize she was also capable of finding a casing if it were there. On the stand, Det. Wade Brown credited another detective — the same guy who later “saw” the shell casing in the April 22 photo — with finding the bullet fragment. Just so you know, Cora is the one who found the bullet fragment. The detective saw it after she alerted to it.
“Cora is a good dog,” Dominguez said. Yes she was, a very good dog. So was Oakley, the dog who found the Reids’ bodies. He also didn’t get credit during Concord Police Department testimony, despite defense prodding.
As a newspaper reporter and editor, I always stressed that if there’s a dog in the story, you must put the name and breed in the article if at all possible. If a dog does something good, if it does something bad, if it dies in a fire, whatever, readers want to know. Same goes for cats, by the way, though they play less of a role in news stories and criminal cases.
There were a lot of dogs in this case to write about. Two of them were Bodi and Coriander, the poodle mix and mutt that belong to Nan Nutt, who was walking them on the trail April 18, 2022, when the Reids passed her on their way into the woods. She heard gunshots a few minutes later, then five minutes after that crossed paths with a guy who was very likely Clegg. Nan Nutt is her real name, and she would be a great character in a book. A retired immunology research scientist with two Ph.D.s, she would not concede to the police that the man she saw was Clegg, and was not asked to identify him in court. He could’ve been, but she didn’t get a good enough look, as they passed, to say for sure. Good for her for being precise and not falling to police pressure, as so many witnesses do, to say what they want the witness to say. [Of course, the local newspaper’s headline said something like “Witness testfies about seeing Clegg in woods.”]
Cora, Oakley, another sniffer dog, Winnie, and even Bodi and Coriander played a part in this case. In my articles, I gave them some ink. In a mystery novel, they would’ve gotten a lot more. Good dogs, all. Very good dogs.
Courtoom scenes in mystery novels? Meh
In general, I don’t have courtroom scenes in my novels. I usually feel a little “ugh, not this” when they come up in books or true crime docs. I feel like the information has already been discussed, so it’s going to slow down the narrative. That, of course, isn’t to knock any of my fellow Maine crime writers who DO have courtroom scenes. I’m sure they’re awesome and great reading.
But some courttroom scene information that I thought would be helpful to a mystery, besides the stuff already mentioned, came to mind as I sat through the trial. One was that much of a defense’s case is made through cross examination of the state’s witnesses. This was particularly true in this trial, where the prosecution witnesses took up about two weeks of the testimony and the defense took up about two days, much of it dealing with the surprise April 22 “shell casing” photo.
I’m not sure most people realize that. People are always so shocked when the defense doesn’t call a witness or “doesn’t put on a case.” In this case, some of the prosecution witnesses ended up being better for the defense — like Clegg’s supervisor at a grocery store in Vermont who, under cross examination by the defense, said she cried when he gave his notice. She said he was a hard worker and good at his job.
In a book, I’d be able to critique defense attorney Mariana Dominguez’ passionate and perfectly written closing, which hit every note. I’d critique prosecutor Joshua Speicher’s, too, which as a writer, editor and person listening for someone to make a good case, I found hamhanded and trite. But as my youngest sister sometimes points out, not everyone’s an English major. Just as she and I can’t agree on the quality of Dan Brown’s books, or the fact that people are using prepositions inaccurately much more than they used to is troubling, the jury may have listened to the prosecution’s closing from a totally different point of view than I did. He certainly made a case that the Reids were good people. He certainly did a lot of pointing at Clegg, calling him a murderer. It didn’t erase any reasonable doubt I had that Clegg shot the Reids.
Speicher started his closing argument with the same photo that opened testimony Oct. 4 — one of Djeswende and Stephen Reid at a birthday celebration for Stephen. It’s a poignant reminder that two people were were killed. The first witness to testify weeks before was Stephen Reid’s sister, Susan Forey, a former New Hampshire State Police lieutenant, who’d reported the couple missing.
Speicher in his closing, pointed to Clegg and shouted “murdered by the defendant!”
The defense contends that confirmation bias led police to focus on one guy, the strange guy in the woods who drank a lot of Mountain Dew and took off out of state the day after the bodies were found. During the voir dire portion of jury selection on Oct. 2, after a jury pool of nearly 200 was pared down to 24, Dominguez asked the group if anyone knew what confirmation bias was. One guy raised his hand. He didn’t make the final cut. I thought right then that it was going to be tough to sell a confirmation bias case to a jury that until Oct. 2 had never heard the term.
Out of that pared-down pool of 24, the one Black person out of the original near-200, also didn’t make the cut. The courtroom isn’t privy to the final strikes by both sides, so we don’t know which side struck the guy who knew what confirmation bias is, or the Black guy. My guess is that the prosecution struck both. Confrimation bias guy was easy — the defense had made clear that was a big part of their case. The Black guy? My guess is that the prosecution didn’t want the one person most likely to question police and their techniques. On the other hand, it’s possible the defense thought he’d sympathize with the Reids, because Djeswende was Black. And, as we know, the more the jury sympathizes with the victims, the harder it is for them to consider the innocence of the defendant. Or even whether the prosecution has made its case. On the same note, in the final 24 there was a woman who looked to be in her 60s, the same age as Djeswende, who seemed very nice and friendly and kind, from the interactions and body language I saw over the course of that day. She was also struck. She was Asian, not Black, but I thought the defense might think she’d remind fellow jurors of Djewsende. If she were on the jury it could, again make it harder for them to find Logan Clegg not guilty.
We’ll never know. But the way juries are narrowed down to 12 (in this case, there were four alternates as well), also filters out those who can see the nuances of a case. Almost anyone who seemed to demonstrate critical thinking skills was struck. If you were trying the case, you wouldn’t want someone who’d question the evidence too much. Who’d wonder too much about the shell casings or baking soda. Or the red herrings. Or realize how investigators can get it wrong. Or wonder what the lawyers were keeping from them. I was on a grand jury in the mid-1990s and it sucked. [Another blog post for another day]. I don’t remember any kind of thorough voir dire, though. I’m pretty sure nowadays, this mystery writer will never get picked for a jury. I used to think I wanted to be. I’m not so sure I do anymore.
Sorry this is so rambling and long. That’s what happens when you are sitting on a floor outside a courtroom writing on a laptop after sitting through three weeks of complex testimony in a murder trial and thinking like both a journalist and a mystery writer. Most of my journalism on this is done, except for the article announcing the verdict.
Is my mystery writer work done? Not really. I am not going to write a book about this trial or case. I certainly don’t expect to start including courtroom scenes, at least not anything but very short ones, in the books I do write. Ugh. It exhausts me just to think about it. But don’t be surprised if my near-month covering this trial inspires some stuff in upcoming books. My next Bernadette O’Dea book, DYING FOR NEWS, is being written even as we speak and is due out in the spring. The one I’ve been working on for a few years, working title THE MOST DANGEROUS MONTH, has more lawyer-courthouse (though not much courtroom) stuff in it. Both, I think will benefit from my strange October. Ooo, that sounds like a good title for some other future book. Dibs!
[Full disclosure: In podcast episodes months before I ever knew I would cover this trial, I at times posited that I thought Clegg was guilty. I am not covering stories in my podcast as a journalist. But, as a working journalist covering the trial, that initial opinion had no influence on my reporting, which was about the testimony and case in front of me. Now that it’s over? I have no clue if he guilty or not, but believe there’s plenty of reasonable doubt].