The Why of a Crime

It’s not always easy to pinpoint what drives America’s fascination with true crime mysteries. Serial’s deep dive into the circumstances surrounding the death of Hae Min Lee only ignited this fascination, as millions downloaded Sarah Koenig’s podcast, and its listeners flocked to Reddit to bravely discuss their theories of how it all went down on a winter night in the outskirts of Baltimore on January 13, 1999. A jury convicted her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who has been in the state’s custody since law enforcement arrested him on February 28, 1999, but an appellate judge granted him a new trial in 2016 because his lawyer ineffectively assisted him during his trial. A kid, at 17, was a bright student with college acceptance letters rolling in already. There’s no doubt the intrigue begins with the difficulty many have in answering – why? Why would he kill her?

Legally speaking, motive is not an element of murder. The state bears the burden of proving each element of the charged criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. It follows, then, that the state is under no obligation to answer that question for you. It does not have to matter. It, of course, helps anyone understand a particular defendant’s actions, but the state must only prove the defendant did it on purpose beyond a reasonable doubt. The reason for this is not always obvious but it makes sense after considering the following.

Video footage shows a man pull a firearm out of his pants. His eyes lock onto his target. He aims, fires, and hits the person whom instantly dies. All of that is caught on tape. While it is clear the man purposefully shot and killed the intended target, the state might never ascertain his introspective thoughts as to why he killed this person. It nonetheless has substantial evidence showing the requisite level of intent for the crime through his deliberate actions. Simply, we often will never truly know why a crime takes place. Even in the rare occasion the defendant testifies or offers a confession that provides a rationale, the true reason is probably not disclosed and the one given is marred with inherent credibility issues the vast extent of which are beyond the scope of this post.

But that’s the thing. It’s the why that draws everyone in. It’s the why that gives it the folklore, as many attempt to extrapolate from their own experience to offer an explanation for events that will forever remain a mystery as to why.

Enter: Germanton, North Carolina in 1929. The mountains of North Carolina, with its tradition for folk and storytelling, is an apt home to its own notorious “familicide,” and the reason for its commission continues to elude all those involved.

On December 25, 1929, Charles Lawson sent his eldest son, who was 16, to go on an errand in the afternoon. While his son was away, Lawson proceeded to murder his wife and other six children, one of whom was only 4-months old. After shooting them with a shotgun, he bludgeoned them to ensure their demise, and then took care to neatly lay them to rest in a tobacco farm with their arms crossed and rocks under their heads as pillows. Hours later, Lawson shot himself in the woods behind his house. Nobody truly knows why he performed these acts; no one knows why he spared his eldest son. Many speculate that a former head injury unhinged primal desires he could not suppress; others suggest he impregnated one of his daughters and Lawson feared his wife and children would realize their impropriety. The site became a tourist attraction, musicians composed songs about the events, and family members wrote books attempting to explain what happened. Of course, none are conclusive – nor will they ever be.

As 2016 nears its end, the tragic events that unfolded on Christmas Day in 1929 remain in the collective culture of that North Carolina community. It’s the why that keeps it alive. It’s the why that feeds America’s true crime addiction. It’s the question, however, that will forever remain unanswered.