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The making of a murderer

Once again, much of the media have been milking the Leigh Matthews story. Nothing wrong in that. It’s been a gripping saga, made important to many of us.

The recent narrative resurrects and then builds on the emotionalism of last year’s coverage. Back then, we had frenzied reports on the search for the abducted university student. They culminated in the news of the discovery of her body, followed by the arrest of a suspect and his subsequent controversial ”confession” as reported in You magazine.

After that, it went quiet for a while. But the story was restored to public memory in the build-up to the trial of Donovan Moodley. The Star newspaper skilfully rekindled the sense of empathy with a lost life. ”Twenty-one for a day” was the heart-tugging tagline on the multipart series it ran.

The paper’s chronological retelling read almost like a thriller; its close-cropped pictures highlighted the eyes of the killer. A new item was a poignant e-mail birthday tribute sent to Matthews by a friend overseas — which, of course, she never got to read. Schmaltz, perhaps, but we lapped it up.

Then the court case kicked off, opening a new phase in which Moodley moved more into view. The evidence fuelled this focus, creating fresh feelings of empathy, anger and amazement. It saw the story shift from victim to perpetrator.

Along the way, the pain of parenthood came to the fore in the evidence by the two fathers: one mourning his ”lost sheep” son; the other distressed over a daughter denied a homecoming though he had paid the ransom.

Blogging took in the scene, with the Mail & Guardian Online‘s own reporter writing an unfettered emotional outpouring of her feelings while at the trial. This attracted strong reaction, precisely because it was riveting reading.

Aiding the compelling quality of the coverage was the logic of judicial process with its promise of inevitable closure. More than just a series of articles and clips, the Matthews file was now a literal ”story”, complete from commencement to conclusion.

The Sunday Times did a good job constructing the penultimate chapter, telling us how Moodley was caught. The end of the story is signalled by the guilty verdict — a fitting climax to the tale. In short, we have a ”wrap” — this is not fundamentally an unresolved mystery. The body was found, the killer convicted; life can now move on.

But in some ways, all this is also a surface story. It tells us the facts, and reinforces — indeed, reassures — our pre-programmed sense of the age-old narrative in which fate cruelly selects innocence as the random prey of intrinsic evil. Which is why the story is accessible, and why it strikes such a chord.

And yet, there is still a great deal untold, and more troubling than the archetypes affirmed thus far. Not that you would get this by dismissing Moodley, as the Sunday Times did, simply as a ”mampara” and ”idiotic, callous, self-absorbed little twit”.

In the same newspaper, a friend of the killer is reported as blaming money for the evil deed. ”It’s the devil”, he says. (Again, believing the devil made Donovan do it makes it easy to dodge the deeper issues at play.)

Such characterisations might convince a kid, but adult readers merit more insight into the complexities that lie beyond the morality tale.

Instead, most news reports repeat, as if it were an explanation, the view that supposedly ”model child” Moodley had a ”dark side”. Rapport suggested that the kidnapping was inspired by the Charlize Theron movie Trapped, not stopping to wonder why Moodley was the only viewer to play copycat.

We also read that the killer had a Grim Reaper image tattooed on his body more than five years ago. But no one questions the oddity that his family still claim to have never suspected a sinister side to him.

What about the cold-blooded way in which Moodley executed his victim — might it suggest he had crossed the threshold of killing people on an earlier occasion? Is anyone in the media following this possibility?

Then there’s the puzzle as to whether the man had a racial hang-up. Did he feel a psychological need to exercise power over that stereotypical symbol, viz a blonde, white woman, as distinct from any other potential hostage?

(Incidentally, how alienated and/or failing was he at the university that he decided to drop out? Can any journalists out there tell us?)

Contrast the unanswered questions in the Moodley coverage with Rian Malan’s book My Traitor’s Heart. In the story of the ”Hammerman” murderer, Malan unpacks the life of Mnotho Simon Mpungose, hanged in 1984 for killing whites in their sleep through vicious hammer blows to their heads.

Malan recounts the court proceedings that reveal how Mpungose’s political anger grew through years of abuse — including time in Barberton, that most brutal of prisons (and where the ”Hammerman” smashed white rocks in the forced-labour heat).

The story is then tracked to Mpungose’s village. There, Malan eventually learns that the ”Hammerman” suffered the taboo of being a second-generation offspring of incest. Re-reading the court record in this light, we realise that the tormented Mpungose had partly precipitated his death in order to be freed of his ”shameful” lineage.

The deeper drivers of Donovan Moodley may be as hard, or harder, to locate. Yet at least the questions should be raised. Otherwise, this compelling narrative to date may succeed in stimulating our human response, and kudos to the media for that. But it also leaves us without insight into the making of a murderer.

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