Jury of One
An interview with John Taylor
By Tanya Stanciu

Warning: some parts of John Taylor’s new nonfiction book The Count and the Confession (Random House, 2002) will make your skin crawl.

In 1992, 60-year-old Roger de la Burde of Richmond, Virginia, a wealthy scientist and art collector who claimed to be a Polish nobleman, was found dead at his 220-acre estate, a gun in his hand and a bullet hole through his head. Police on the scene assumed it was suicide, but gunpowder residue on the dead man’s fingers led detectives to believe someone else pulled the trigger.

The homicide investigation quickly focused on the man’s longtime girlfriend, 52-year-old Beverly Monroe, a woman so quiet and unassuming that people called her "Mouse." To many who knew her, it was inconceivable that this dutiful, educated, divorced mother of three who had never received a parking ticket could murder the man she loved. But Beverly stood to inherit a significant amount of property through Roger’s will, and shortly before the shooting she had written him an angry letter about her fear of being pushed aside by his other, pregnant lover. Beverly knew where his gun was kept, and she was the last person to see him alive.

Beverly Monroe had an alibi, and there was no physical evidence against her. But then, at a state trooper’s invitation, she went to police headquarters without a lawyer, and after several hours of questioning, agreed to take a lie detector test. An interrogator told her she failed the test, and he suggested she could have blocked out the memory of being with Roger when he died. Several hours of questioning later, Beverly agreed on tape that she had seen him pull the trigger.

Prosecutors now had a defendant who changed her story and a tape-recorded "confession" to use against her. A jury found Beverly Monroe guilty of murder, and she was sentenced to 22 years in prison. In the years since then, roughly seven of which she spent behind bars, she has stuck to her story of innocence, claiming the interrogator manipulated her in her grief-stricken state.

The mysteries surrounding this colorful case and its surprising outcome are the subject of Taylor’s new book. Gadfly interviewed the author before a reading in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which he played parts of Beverly Monroe’s fateful recorded "confession."

Gadfly: What got you interested in this case?

Taylor: I came across an article about Beverly Monroe’s appeal in The New York Times two and a half years ago or so. I was fascinated by several aspects of it. The guy who died, Roger de la Burde, and his pretensions and his claims made him from the beginning a very intriguing character.

Then I was just fascinated by the psychological dynamic of someone who would confess or implicate herself in a crime that she hadn’t committed. I mean, how does that happen? How people paint themselves into that kind of a corner just became really, really intriguing. I had been interested in and had written before about false memories and repressed memories, and the idea that this woman [Beverly Monroe] could have been persuaded that she had blocked out this incredibly traumatic incident was fascinating, whichever way it turned out. If it turned out that she was lying and that this whole thing was a ruse, that was fascinating. And if it turned out that she was innocent and the police had actually genuinely persuaded her that she had blocked this thing out, how they had been able to persuade her and the consequences that it had on her life, it’s all just very, very intriguing.

And then, you know, my family’s from the South, from Tennessee, and we lived for a few years in Arlington, and I felt this connection to Virginia. I’ve always loved this state. So that was another thing.

So what kinds of things surprised you as you started to research the case?

I spent two years on it, and there were a lot of revelations. The case against Beverly Monroe is a circumstantial case, but it’s a fairly persuasive one if you take it on its own terms. The evidence exonerating her is pretty persuasive too. The forensics of the case are complicated, and that took a lot of work: understanding and digesting the different competing forensic theories and getting comfortable enough to be able to write in a semi-intelligent way about it.

But then to me even more interesting than the facts of the case were the people involved, and I found myself really drawn towards all of them. Katie Monroe [Beverly’s daughter who subsequently devoted her law career to handling her mother’s appeal] is a very compelling, heroic, attractive young woman. And her mother’s a kind of tragic figure, kind of difficult to understand, with a very distinct sensibility. She’s a very unusual person.

And I found the police officers and the investigators were all likable guys. I felt like I really understood them and why they did what they did. These were not corrupt cops who had it in for Beverly Monroe. Maybe they made some mistakes in judgment, but they were doing what they were trained to do. The idea that this process by which an arguably innocent person ended up convicted was not the work of an aberrant rogue cop who was violating procedure. [Instead there were] these well-meaning, plodding guys who looked at the evidence, made certain assumptions, and had been trained to do certain things.

It’s very disturbing. Once this whole machinery of justice gets going, it just grinds along, and grinds these people up, and it’s sort of impossible to stop. The police and the prosecutors have this theory of the case, and they become invested in it, and they spend time and money on it, and then their own credibility is at stake, and so they become more and more committed to the thing, and then there’s a jury verdict. And [now] the attorney general’s office is committed to upholding the jury’s verdict and maintaining the conviction.

The book seems very evenhanded in describing what happened. Did you come up with a theory yourself? What do you think happened?

Well, I think [Roger de la Burde] committed suicide. I mean, there’s no definitive proof he committed suicide, and there’s no definitive proof that [Beverly Monroe] killed him. She has an alibi, but there’s no definitive proof that she didn’t kill him. There are just these three scenarios [suicide, she killed him, someone else killed him], and there are things arguing in favor of each scenario, and things arguing against each scenario. But I think the suicide explanation is the simplest explanation. It’s usually the simplest things that turn out to be true, and these other things are just so baroque and complicated that it makes [homicide] implausible. So I believe that he committed suicide.

Then why would Beverly Monroe fail the polygraph test?

Well, I tried to put in all the evidence exonerating her. I felt like it’s in the book, but I didn’t make the argument myself. At one point, there’s a discussion of polygraphs, and the police investigators themselves said that these things are only good two out of three times, maybe. One out of three times innocent people will fail polygraphs for all sorts of reasons. They’re nervous, they’re tired, they’re distracted, they’re tapping their toes. All kinds of things.

A couple of the reviews [of the book] take issue with the fact that I didn’t make the case myself. They thought the author should take a position and argue it. I thought about doing it that way, but I decided not to because I wanted the book to be seen as fair and objective, and I didn’t want people who are convinced that Beverly Monroe is guilty to feel that I was slighting any of the evidence or that I was somehow in the Beverly Monroe camp.

There was a guy who covered the trial for the local paper who wanted to write a book about it and tried to sell it, but was unable to. He was convinced that [Beverly Monroe] was guilty. He basically said that’s what his book would have concluded and would have forced the reader to conclude.

I wanted to spell out all of the evidence both for and against. I didn’t want the reader to feel manipulated, and I wanted the reader to basically be in the position of the jury. Each reader is sort of a jury of one. You know, you read it, you decide. Maybe some people feel unsatisfied with that, they feel that’s kind of frustrating, they want to be told what happened—I don’t know. I thought I would give people the freedom to make up their own minds. Anyway, that’s why I did it the way I did it.

What were some of the challenges of writing a book about a particular case and the investigation of a possible crime?

The main challenge in a book like this was structural, organizational. There’s a lot of material, and I had to make decisions on what I was going to focus on, what was going to be the narrative structure. I could have gone to Poland and spent all this time trying to track down the truth about Roger de la Burde’s family and his background and whether or not he was really a count, but I just thought that was all back story, that I had pretty persuasive evidence, albeit secondhand, but confirmations from a lot of sources within the de la Burde family that he was not a count, that this was a phony claim.

So I had to make decisions on stuff like that, what to focus on. But the story had a very natural structure, which made it interesting and fun to write. I didn’t have to impose a structure on it. There was the death and the investigation, and that’s the first third, and then there’s the trial, and that’s the second third, and then there’s the appeal. What I thought would be most dramatically interesting was to follow all of these different people through the investigation, the trial, and the appeal. So you follow Beverly Monroe, you follow the investigators. When the lawyers get involved, you follow the lawyers and what they think of what’s going on.

I could have tried to pretend to solve the mystery, in the way that Joe McGinniss—I don’t know if you’ve ever read Fatal Vision—but Joe McGinniss pretended to solve that case, and he decided Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty. He met a woman MacDonald had dated, and MacDonald had lost his temper with this woman’s son and the woman had felt very threatened, and this was the critical clue to McGinniss that proved that this guy is capable of just losing his temper and lashing out and being violent, and he "solved" it. He didn’t really solve it, but he created the impression of solving it. I didn’t want to do that. Instead of pretending to solve it myself, I wanted to follow all these different people and explore the ways they dealt with the mystery and how they made sense of it, and how the conclusions they reached about what happened affected their behavior and their subsequent actions. And I found that it was just bringing these people to life and making them all sympathetic that was the most rewarding part of doing the book.

So you felt like you were telling a story more than you were arguing a particular case?

Yeah, exactly. The problem was there really wasn’t an end to the story. I finished it last fall, and the review galleys had all gone out in February. The book was at the printer’s, and it was scheduled to go to press, and then suddenly Beverly Monroe was released. [In March 2002, a judge ruled in favor of Beverly Monroe in her federal appeal, and she was released from prison.] Her lawyer called me that afternoon and said the judge had issued an order releasing her, and the prosecution had opposed it, and there was going to be a hearing the next week. So I just jumped in my car immediately and drove down to Richmond and stayed there over the next few days.

I was actually over at the prison talking to Beverly when she got the call from the Department of Corrections [releasing her], and it was very, very moving and exciting. I was there with her when she got this news, and she was going to go back in and pack, and so she went down the hall through the door and up into the prison dorm, and there was this silence for a few seconds, and then I started hearing this cheering break out, and it got louder and louder, and it spread to other parts of the prison, and that was really very, very thrilling.

So she is out of prison now, but the state can appeal?

Right, she’s been released, and the state attorney general has said that he’s going to appeal it, but I don’t know. I just hope that all these people just agree to drop the thing, even if they believe she’s guilty. I mean, she’s served seven years. People serve less time than that for murder. She’s 64 years old.

Is she angry? Is her family angry? How do they deal with what happened?

Yeah, I mean, they were incredibly elated to have her suddenly sprung free on a Friday afternoon after she’d been in prison for seven years. No one foresaw this. No one. They were all positive that the judge was going to rule with the prosecution. So they were just incredibly shocked and elated. But now that their mother’s out, they still feel like they’ve got this sword hanging over their head. It’s still dragging on.

So how do you think things like this happen? If Beverly Monroe was wrongfully convicted, how do you explain it? Is our justice system flawed?

Well, it is a flawed system, and it’s inevitable that it’s going to be flawed. You can’t devise a perfect system, and that’s the really scary thing about it. All this law-and-order, truth-in-sentencing, [abolition of] parole, I mean, all this tough-crackdown-on-crime mentality that you saw in the late 80s and early 90s was understandable in cities like Richmond. The crime rate was just outrageously high. People got shot right and left from driveby shootings and things. People had the sense that they were no longer living in a safe society, and people were committing crimes and getting out the next day and committing more crimes, and they had to do something. And in the rush to create a safe society, people overlooked the fact that it’s a flawed system and a lot of times innocent people end up being convicted.

It’s also a cautionary tale for citizens. One of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen is to be aware of how the legal system functions and not to take things for granted. People today just cannot believe that Beverly Monroe would ever agree to go down to the police station without a lawyer and that she did not discuss it with her daughter, who was a lawyer, or her boss, who was a lawyer. She didn’t call a single lawyer, she went down there, and she agreed to take this [polygraph] test. Then when she failed the test, she buys this investigator’s theory that she had suppressed the memory of her lover committing suicide. Some people find that so hard, even impossible, to swallow. Her ultimate defense is naivete. We have a responsibility to ourselves not to be naïve.

This book clearly required a large amount of research.

Oh, I have bookshelves filled with documents. There was a huge amount of material. I had to read through it all several times and stay on top of it. Writing it, I’d need a certain fact and I’d spend hours looking through the trial transcript, looking in the depositions—you know, material piled up everywhere.

Will the book be made into a movie?

I don’t know. I think it would be a good movie, but who knows? No one’s made an offer. There’s interest, but it could be complicated to make into a movie. Movies are best when they have a very limited time frame. This is a sprawling story. There’s all this background, and it’s always hard to work background into a movie. But, you know, you could do it. I think if you were going to make it into a movie that Katie Monroe would be the protagonist, that the movie would be about her and her relationship with her mother and her struggle for her mother.

What is Katie Monroe doing now?

She’s still working on the appeal. They’re raising money and trying to get together lists of supporters. I think they’ve got a letter-writing campaign going on to try to persuade the attorney general not to proceed with the appeal. Then if [the state proceeds] with the appeal, they’ve got to put their legal hats back on. But it casts a real shadow over their lives. Their mother could go back to jail, or if [the state decides] not to appeal, the local prosecutor could decide to retry the case.

Are you working on another book?

I have to come up with an idea. I’ve got a couple of ideas that are preliminary. I’m not really working on anything. It’s hard. These writers who send in the manuscript and then right away start on the next project and are deep into their next book when the other book comes out—I’ve never been able to work that way.

Would you do another book on a case like this?

Yeah, I would. Trials are just great. There’s a natural drama. One of the things that’s always interested me and attracted me to particular stories is when there is conflict that you can see both sides of. Instead of having a conflict between good and evil, you have a conflict between two understandable, sympathetic, but flawed points of view of people. To me, those are the most compelling stories around.

Readers can download a sound file of Beverly Monroe’s "confession" from