By Caitlin Rother
After being a newspaper reporter for various Metro sections in California and Massachusetts for nearly 20 years, I now use my investigative and storytelling skills to research and write compelling tales in books, and my deadline experience to write them quickly.
When I left The San Diego Union-Tribune in September 2006, a year after my first book, Poisoned Love, was published about the Kristin Rossum murder case, I went through a bit of an identity dilemma. Just because I was now a full-time author, did that mean I wasn’t a reporter anymore? I still felt like a reporter inside, watching cable news and commentary on TV and reading the newspaper, with that “need to know everything right now” sensibility that made me good at my job all those years.
I also continued to follow the crime stories I was now writing in book length form as if I still worked for the newspaper, meaning I wanted there in person every time the accused murderer went to court because I didn’t want to miss anything.
The thing is, books aren’t just longer newspaper articles, and eventually, I had to accept that I needed to work differently. My job is now to write narrative non-fiction, which requires me to gather information in a different form, because I’m not explaining what happened as much as I am crafting dramatic scenes. I’m also not just covering local cases these days, so when a verdict is being announced in 20 minutes, but I’m two or more hours away, I have to recreate the scene by talking to folks who were there.
Nonetheless, every once in a while, that old instinct kicks in and I’ve JUST GOT TO KNOW what happened – even when I’ve already written a book about it.
This happened a couple of weeks ago, when Rossum’s federal appeal finally got some traction, eight years after she was sentenced to life in prison without parole for poisoning her husband with a cocktail of drugs she stole from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, where she’d worked as a toxicologist.
Now, at the time, I was already juggling a few balls: I was on deadline, trying to finish book #7, My Life Deleted, a memoir I’m co-authoring with a man who lost all 46 years of his long-term memory; I was working with a publicist to get ready for the February release of my next book, Dead Reckoning; and I was also gathering material for book #8, on the John Gardner case.
When I got a text message at 8 a.m. (I was still in bed) from a local lawyer asking me what I thought about the Rossum case, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew I needed to find out. Immediately.
Those old reporter instincts kicked in and I turned on the TV in my bedroom until I could find a newsbreak. Sure enough, I got a tidbit, but it wasn’t enough, so I went to my computer to learn more. I read news stories online, posted one on FaceBook and Twitter, sent out some emails, and finally got ahold of the court ruling so I could read it for myself. Because I had covered this case for several years for the paper before I wrote the authoritative book about it, people were asking me questions – Will she get a new trial? Is she about to go free? What’s your take? – and I needed to know what to say.
Once I finally figured it out, I posted a quick summary and analysis on FaceBook, which, honestly, left me wanting to write more, but here goes:
“Court says defendant’s argument of suicide by fentanyl was even more implausible than prosecution’s argument of death by fentanyl, because the medical evidence had too many inconsistencies, really, for either one. That said, the appeal is based on a claim of ineffective counsel – for not questioning the prosecution’s death by fentanyl argument and for not ordering tests on the autopsy samples for fentanyl metabolites, to see if Rossum’s husband had the drug in his system when he died, or if the samples were contaminated afterward. So, prejudice against Rossum can’t be determined without a test to prove/disprove whether samples were contaminated intentionally or unintentionally during the 36 hours they were left, unsecured, in the ME’s refrigerator before going to a private toxicology lab.
Appeals court says motive was there for intentional contamination – coworker’s jealousy and resentment against Rossum and her lover boss. (Seems like a stretch in a lab whose specific purpose is to help solve homicide cases.) So, the federal district court must now hold a hearing and allow Rossum’s new attorney to ask for the tests and then we’ll see. If you take fentanyl out of the equation for the cause of death, that would certainly change the case, but the state argues that even the absence of fentanyl should not exonerate her, because she still could have killed him other ways, i.e. the symbiotic mix of Clonazepam and Oxycodone that were also in his blood could have proved fatal, even though that was not the ME’s finding.
That aside, the prosecution’s fentanyl death argument was also bolstered with all kinds of other evidence, which this court ruling doesn’t discuss, because the appeal is focused on the ineffective counsel claim. So, once they have this hearing, and retest the autopsy samples, Rossum may or may not get a new trial. The thing is, she was a meth addict, meth addicts lie, and the prosecutor got Rossum to admit she lied on the stand for several days straight, and that had to contribute to the jury’s guilty verdict. Bottom line is that ultimately, meth is what did her in, Greg, her family, and his.”
A producer friend of mine at Dateline has since called me to say she is working on a story, so I plan to keep following this appeal online, on TV, and I’ll probably even attend the hearing because… I still don’t want to miss anything.
Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigative newspaper reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of six books, Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins. Her next book, Dead Reckoning, the story behind the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by Skylar Deleon and his clan of outlaws, including his wife, Jennifer, will be out in February 2011. She has two more books in the pipeline. For more information, check out her Web site, caitlinrother.com.