As a young law-school intern, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich left the august halls of Harvard for Louisiana, where she was assigned to a firm specializing in defending clients facing the death penalty. One of the firm’s clients was Ricky Langley, a pedophile, who was charged with murdering a six-year old. It’s a case that changed Marzano-Lesnevich’s life, altering her career path, consuming much of her young professional life, and prompting her to reexamine her own childhood. The case, along with her childhood, serve as the raw material for her first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.
This Q & A was published in the Houston Chronicle on 5-25-2017.
Q: How did you become interested in the Ricky Langley case?
A: I went to law school knowing I wanted to fight the death penalty, and I took an internship my first year of law school with a death penalty law firm in New Orleans. Shortly after I arrived, I was shown a confession tape of a man, Ricky Langley, who molested and murdered a six-year old boy. And as I watched the tape, I felt time collapse around me. I grew up being sexually molested, and this case created a conflict for me. I didn’t work on the Langley case, but when I returned to law school and even later, the case still haunted me.
Q: Did this case become a test case of your death penalty views?
A: Yes, I believed that if I truly opposed the death penalty, then I should be able to defend child molesters, and it wasn’t that simple. The case unlocked complex questions: what do we do with the past? How do we construct stories in the legal system?
Q: What answers to these complex questions did you find?
A: People don’t leave their lives behind them when they sit on juries, and I didn’t leave my past behind me when I engaged this case. I read more than 30,000 pages of court records, and these records shed light on my understanding of the case, but also on my understanding of my past. The people involved in this case saw it through the lenses of their own past: the jury foreman, the lead defense attorney, the judge, and I believe even the victim’s mother. We think of the law as a truth-seeking mechanism, but it’s more of a truth-making mechanism. It makes a story and it calls that story truth.
A: I’ve wondered! I’m sure the lawyers do; they were devoted. But I do feel as though I am carrying this case with me.
Q: Is it that sense of “carrying the case with you” that prompted you to weave your story with that of the Langley case?
A: The stories, at least in my own mind, were intertwined, and I realized it’s a crucial part of the story. The people involved in the case looked at the crime through the lens of their own lives, and as I studied the case more, I realized I was doing the same. I wanted to lay that out there, so that readers can see the lens I examined the case through—and perhaps they will examine the case through the lens of their own lives.
Q: As you mention in the book, looking at the case through the lens of your life involves re-examining unpleasant memories, including that of being molested by your grandfather.
A: Yes, and these experiences made it impossible for me to approach the case as an abstract idea. My ideals—of being against the death penalty, for example—couldn’t serve as a complete barrier against what had been done to me. Empathizing with Langley meant re-examining the actions of my grandfather, and it wasn’t so simple. It forced me to see a fuller picture of people.
Q: In the book, you suggest that the jury was also able to see a fuller picture, even when the law asked jurors to simply choose a side.
A: Yes, and I thought the jury’s approach was more honest to the actual complexity of the situation.
Q: Do you think it was more just?
A: That’s a complicated word in a case like this, but I’ll say a tentative yes.
Q: Part of seeing a “fuller picture” is looking at Langley’s childhood.
A: The circumstances of his birth are striking. His mother was in a car crash before he was conceived and he was conceived while she was in that full body cast. He grew in her womb for months while she was constrained in that body cast, and he was exposed to all sorts of drugs and x-rays in utero. It was a traumatic way to enter the world.
Q: What is Ricky Langley doing now?
A: He’s serving a life sentence.
Q: Do you have any contact with him?
A: I do not, other than the time I write about in the book.
MY: What books influenced your writing?
AL: I am sure it is abundantly clear that In Cold Blood was important. For a while I described this book as “In Cold Blood if Capote had been honest about his personal stake in the story.” The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, was an important influence. A departure from those, but also influential was Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen, which is about growing up in the shadows of a nuclear plant. Iversen’s book incorporates her research and her life, which was illuminating.
Q: You’ve spent a lot of time on this case and, by extension, this book. As a first-time author, how are you approaching the book tour?
A: I am excited. I am looking forward to getting out there and getting people’s reactions. Writing and research are solitary endeavors, so I am thrilled to bring the book out to the world.
Q: And how does your family feel about you bringing this book—and the personal stories in it—out to the world?
A: It’s complicated. They’re proud of me, but it’s difficult because it’s a real story, and it’s our family. I’m fortunate to have their understanding, and I think it took a lot of hard work and thinking through things to get to that point.
Q: Have your experiences with the book changed your view on the death penalty?
A: I am still very opposed to it. In some ways that is because I want the law to be better than I am, better than my intense emotional reactions.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.