Warning: some parts
of John Taylors 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
mans fingers led detectives to believe someone else
pulled the trigger.
The homicide investigation
quickly focused on the mans 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 Rogers
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 troopers 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
The mysteries surrounding
this colorful case and its surprising outcome are the
subject of Taylors new book. Gadfly interviewed
the author before a reading in Charlottesville, Virginia,
during which he played parts of Beverly Monroes
fateful recorded "confession."
Gadfly: What got
you interested in this case?
Taylor: I came across an
article about Beverly Monroes 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 hadnt 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, its all just very, very
And then, you know, my
familys from the South, from Tennessee, and we lived
for a few years in Arlington, and I felt this connection
to Virginia. Ive always loved this state. So that
was another thing.
So what kinds
of things surprised you as you started to research the
I spent two years on it,
and there were a lot of revelations. The case against
Beverly Monroe is a circumstantial case, but its
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 [Beverlys daughter who subsequently
devoted her law career to handling her mothers appeal]
is a very compelling, heroic, attractive young woman.
And her mothers a kind of tragic figure, kind of
difficult to understand, with a very distinct sensibility.
Shes 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.
Its very disturbing.
Once this whole machinery of justice gets going, it just
grinds along, and grinds these people up, and its
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 theres a jury
verdict. And [now] the attorney generals office
is committed to upholding the jurys 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, theres no definitive
proof he committed suicide, and theres no definitive
proof that [Beverly Monroe] killed him. She has an alibi,
but theres no definitive proof that she didnt
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. Its 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 its
in the book, but I didnt make the argument myself.
At one point, theres 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. Theyre nervous, theyre
tired, theyre distracted, theyre tapping their
toes. All kinds of things.
A couple of the reviews
[of the book] take issue with the fact that I didnt
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 didnt 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 thats 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 didnt 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
thats kind of frustrating, they want to be told
what happenedI dont know. I thought I would
give people the freedom to make up their own minds. Anyway,
thats 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. Theres
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
Burdes 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 didnt have to impose a structure
on it. There was the death and the investigation, and
thats the first third, and then theres the
trial, and thats the second third, and then theres
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 whats going on.
I could have tried to pretend
to solve the mystery, in the way that Joe McGinnissI
dont know if youve ever read Fatal Visionbut
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
womans 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
didnt really solve it, but he created the impression
of solving it. I didnt 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
Yeah, exactly. The problem
was there really wasnt 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 printers, 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,
So she is out
of prison now, but the state can appeal?
Right, shes been
released, and the state attorney general has said that
hes going to appeal it, but I dont know. I
just hope that all these people just agree to drop the
thing, even if they believe shes guilty. I mean,
shes served seven years. People serve less time
than that for murder. Shes 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 shed 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 mothers out, they still feel like theyve
got this sword hanging over their head. Its still
So how do you
think things like this happen? If Beverly Monroe was wrongfully
convicted, how do you explain it? Is our justice system
Well, it is a flawed system,
and its inevitable that its going to be flawed.
You cant devise a perfect system, and thats
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 its
a flawed system and a lot of times innocent people end
up being convicted.
Its 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 didnt 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 investigators 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, Id need a certain fact and
Id spend hours looking through the trial transcript,
looking in the depositionsyou know, material piled
Will the book
be made into a movie?
I dont know. I think
it would be a good movie, but who knows? No ones
made an offer. Theres 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. Theres all this background, and its
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?
Shes still working
on the appeal. Theyre raising money and trying to
get together lists of supporters. I think theyve
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, theyve
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. Ive got a couple of ideas that are preliminary.
Im not really working on anything. Its 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 outIve
never been able to work that way.
Would you do another
book on a case like this?
Yeah, I would. Trials are
just great. Theres a natural drama. One of the things
thats 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 Monroes "confession" from