Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in the Ted Bundy Case

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Truth in the Ted Bundy Case[edit]


The Ted Bundy trial is one of the most notable criminal cases in US history as there was a huge disconnect between the public's perception and his crimes. The stark dichotomy between his self-presentation as the all-American boy and his heinous crimes was key to disorienting the public’s perception.[1] Since then, Ted Bundy has been of great interest in a variety of disciplines, including law, psycholinguistics, and journalism, all attempting to uncover the truth of his character and his crimes.

Bundy's Manipulation of the Truth[edit]

Psycholinguistics and Truth

Ted Bundy in court[2]

Ted Bundy was known for his chameleonic personality. He was able to change his persona and behaviour to look different to different people. Some colleagues look back on him as a “compassionate counselor”, whilst others described him as “cold” and “lacking compassion”.[3] The combination of his intelligence, arrogance and charm made him both a compelling and repelling figure. Reporter Barbara Grossman aptly summarised the ‘Ted Bundy’ effect: "Sometimes I come away from an interview with Ted thinking I've got great stuff. But then the more you listen to what he says, the more you wonder what he's saying."[3]

Establishing truth in forensic contexts is a legal necessity, but becomes problematic when decisions of guilt and innocence become dependent on dialogue-based evidence. This is what happened in the Bundy case. In his final interviews, Bundy utilised the semantic field of innocence and vulnerability when describing his pornography addiction, as if he were not strong enough to withstand its allure. When speaking to the interviewer, he played to the 'all-American' archetype he knew he had been ascribed (“we are your sons”)[4], forging a deep connection with the public while drawing their attention away from his guilt.[5]

His assertions regarding pornography almost caused more controversy than his crimes, switching tactics as he began to blame society in the eleventh hour.[1] His psychopathic traits could be seen when Bundy manipulated his self-presentation (through his linguistic choices) to encourage the judge and public to create a sympathetic relationship towards him, a fallible man. Bundy created a constructivist version of his self-presentation, which did not match with reality. The subjective nature of truth is highlighted here as language can be interpreted differently. This means that everyone acquired a different perception of the reality, which was further emphasized by how the media approached his case.

Bundy in the Press[edit]

Journalism and Truth

Ted Bundy's mugshot[6]

Bundy’s trial was the first nationally televised trial in the United States. Reporters flocked to his 1979 trial, marking the beginning of a genre of proto-reality television shows: murder trials.[7]

Although journalists seek to provide a fair account of facts and verified data that correspond with reality, the often subjective tools employed may distort the truth. It is at their discretion to decide who and what to focus on.[8] Recorded clippings of his trial focused on the public persona Bundy constructed through psycholinguistics, meaning the audience failed to take into account the gruesome details of his crimes.

The introduction of this technological advancement in journalism influenced the public’s perception of his character: public defenders claimed he “was very conscious of the camera”, presenting himself as a charming young man. His grandiose stage presence, screaming and impulsively marrying a woman on the witness stand, was designed to stir up controversy, simultaneously shocking and delighting the audience. His persona was so convincing that some believed that he was framed and was actually innocent.[9]

Furthermore, he was careless when he wanted to be. His acknowledgement of this added to his paradoxical ‘devilish yet charming’ reputation (“I’m the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet”).[10] This stage persona that he constructed skewed perceptions as the media broadcast this as the correspondent truth. [11]

As he was able to manipulate the camera, Bundy again created a constructivist version of his true character, then broadcast by the media as the correspondent truth. This exemplifies how journalism romanticised Bundy, creating a new contested version of the truth. The objective facts of him being a convicted murderer and rapist were overshadowed by his greater-than-nature persona. These perceptions then bled into the law, as one of the judges commented “I might say you look nice today, Mr. Bundy. I’m glad to see you in proper uniform”. His charisma was highlighted by the media and therefore, hindered the judge’s ability to rule out his case with absolute objective truth.[7]

Bundy Under the Law[edit]

Ted Bundy's Volkswagen in which he was first arrested.[12] The passenger seats were removed to hide his victims.

Law and Truth

The legal proceeding in an American court for criminals is that the accused person (i.e. Ted Bundy) is presumed innocent until there is enough proof to say otherwise (presumption of innocence).[13] After each side has made their case during a trial, the jury decides the sentence of the accused, reaching a decision in the most fair and informed way possible.[14] Therefore, the legal truth is based on what the attorney on each side can convince the jury of. If there is enough evidence to prove that the convicted is in fact guilty, a sentence will be decided. However, if the jury feels as if it does not have enough evidence to prove the convicted as being guilty, they will be released.

This positivist approach to the truth is very different to that in other disciplines as it states that the the accused is innocent until they are proven guilty. According to the empirical “legal truth”, Bundy was innocent at the beginning of his trials. This presumption of innocence led to his release when he was first arrested in August 16, 1975 by the Utah Highway patrol for suspicious equipment found in the back of his Volkswagen.[15]

When he was caught, the detectives did not have enough evidence to prove his involvement in the disappearance of five young women. Due to the structure of the American legal system, he was declared innocent and released from any further persecution. Had there been enough evidence to prove that he was guilty and had the legal truth reflected the absolute truth, many girls "would still be alive'', recalls Bob Hayward, the highway patrol sergeant who arrested Bundy. This reveals certain shortcomings in the legal approach to truth, which one might consider hindered by its positivist approach. [16]


Reality can be seen through various perspectives. Journalism aims for correspondent truth, but this was skewed as who and what the media focused on, coupled with his linguistic manipulation, enabled him to construct an alternate self-presentation. This constructed truth presented by journalists subconsciously influenced the jury in Bundy’s favour. His manipulation through language bolstered this particular reality, further deepening the divide between the legal evidence against him and his outward persona.

Moreover, Ted Bundy made no attempts to appear innocent on camera, yet the legal system put forward an empirical stance due to the “presumption of innocence” principle. Consequently, the complexity of his case urges us to consider a pluralistic view of the truth: perhaps all these different iterations are facets of the same truth, thus an example of interdisciplinarity at work.


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  10. Michaud S, Aynesworth H. Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer: The Death Row Interviews. Authorlink; 2000.
  11. Shelton J. How The Televised Trial Of Ted Bundy Created Reality TV [Internet]. Groovy History. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from:
  12. Ted Bundy's Volkswagen [Internet]. [cited 1 December 2019]. Available from:
  13. The American System of Criminal Justice | Stimmel Law [Internet]. 2019 [cited 15 November 2019]. Available from:
  14. Criminal [Internet]. 2006 [cited 20 November 2019]. Available from:
  15. FRANCIS S. Trooper who arrested Ted Bundy dies at 90 [Internet]. GOOD4UTAH. 2017 [cited 19 November 2019]. Available from:
  16. Ortiz M. Utah law enforcement helped bring Ted Bundy down [Internet]. abc4 news. 2015 [cited 22 November 2019]. Available from: