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

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Truth in the Ted Bundy Case[edit]

Introduction[edit]

Ted Bundy's mugshot[1]

The Ted Bundy trial is one of the most notable criminal cases in US history. The stark dichotomy between his self-presentation as the all-American boy and his heinous crimes was key to disorienting the public’s perception.[2] This distortion did not correspond to the reality of his crimes and true self.

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 in the Press[edit]

Journalism and Truth

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.[3]

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.[4] Recorded clippings of his trial focused on Bundy’s public persona, meaning the audience failed to take into account the gruesome details of his crimes, which reconstructed the perceived reality of his case.

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 strong that some even believed that he was framed and was innocent.[5]

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”).[6] As he was able to manipulate the camera, Bundy created a constructivist version of his true character, then broadcast by the media as the correspondent truth.[7]

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, demonstrating how this constructed version of himself manipulated audiences nationwide in his favour.

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 truth.[3]

Bundy Under the Law[edit]

Law and Truth

Ted Bundy in court[8]

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).[9] In the United States, after each side has made their case during a trial, the jury will then decide the sentence of the accused, reaching a decision in the most fair and informed way possible.[10] Therefore, the legal truth is only coined as what the attorney on each side of the conviction can convince the jury of. If there is enough evidence to prove that the convicted is in fact guilty, a sentence will be decided for the convicted. 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 version of the truth is very different to that in other disciplines as it states that the the accused is innocent until they are proven guilty. Therefore, according to the empirical “legal truth”, at the beginning of his trials, Bundy was innocent. This presumption of innocence led to his release upon his first arrest in August 16, 1975 by the Utah Highway patrol due to the suspicious equipment found in the back of his Volkswagen.[11]

When he was caught, detectives at the time did not have enough evidence to prove that he was responsible for the disappearance of five young women. Due to the structure of the legal system, he was declared innocent and released from any further persecution. If there had been enough evidence to prove that he was guilty and if 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. [12]

Bundy's Manipulation of the Truth[edit]

Psycholinguistics and Truth

Ted Bundy's Volkswagen in which he was first arrested.[13] The passenger seats were removed to easily hide his victims.

Bundy's chameleonic flexibility allowed him to look different to different people in different situations. Some colleagues look back on him as a “compassionate counselor”, whilst others described him as “cold” and “lacking compassion”.[14] The combination of his intelligence, arrogance and charm made him, simultaneously, a compelling and repelling figure. The ‘Ted Bundy’ effect is aptly summarised by reporter Barbara Grossman: "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."[14]

Establishing truth in forensic contexts is a legal necessity, but becomes problematic when decisions of guilt and innocence become dependent on dialogue-based evidence. In his final interviews, Bundy creates a 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 also plays to the all-American archetype he knows he has been ascribed (“we are your sons”)[15], creating a deep connection with the public and drawing their attention away from his guilt.[16]

His assertions regarding pornography almost caused more controversy than his crimes, switching tactics as he begins to blame society in the eleventh hour.[2] Bundy manipulates, a psychopathic trait, his self-presentation and his linguistic choices to encourage the judge and public to create a sympathetic relationship towards him.  

It is clear that Bundy constructs his own truth that does not correspond with reality. He draws up different versions with every stakeholder of his case, each acquiring a different perception of the reality.

Conclusion[edit]

Reality can be seen through various perspectives. Journalism aims for correspondent truth, but the media enabled him to construct an alternate self-presentation as they were unable to control how Bundy portrayed himself. The constructed truth presented by journalists subconsciously influenced the jury in Bundy’s favour. Meanwhile, psychology defines him as a psychopathic manipulator, which conflicts with the public’s perception of him. His manipulation through language bolstered this constructed 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.

References[edit]

  1. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Public Domain. Ted Bundy in court [Internet]. [cited 1 December 2019]. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14196442
  2. a b Caputi J. The Sexual Politics of Murder. Gender & Society [Internet]. 1989;3(4):437-456. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/089124389003004003
  3. a b Lauredo M. Serial Killer Ted Bundy Found the Spotlight During His Miami Trial [Internet]. Miami New Times. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.miaminewtimes.com/arts/ted-bundy-murder-trial-in-miami-foreshadowed-true-crime-fandom-11070191
  4. The elements of journalism - American Press Institute [Internet]. American Press Institute. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/
  5. Nordheimer J. All-American boy on Trial. The New York Times [Internet]. 1978 [cited 27 November 2019];. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/10/archives/allamerican-boy-on-trial-ted-bundy.html
  6. Michaud S, Aynesworth H. Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer: The Death Row Interviews. Authorlink; 2000.
  7. Shelton J. How The Televised Trial Of Ted Bundy Created Reality TV [Internet]. Groovy History. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from: https://groovyhistory.com/televised-trial-serial-killer-ted-bundy
  8. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Public Domain. Ted Bundy in court [Internet]. [cited 1 December 2019]. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14196442
  9. The American System of Criminal Justice | Stimmel Law [Internet]. Stimmel-law.com. 2019 [cited 15 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.stimmel-law.com/en/articles/american-system-criminal-justice
  10. Criminal [Internet]. Judiciary.uk. 2006 [cited 20 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.judiciary.uk/about-the-judiciary/the-justice-system/jurisdictions/criminal-jurisdiction/
  11. FRANCIS S. Trooper who arrested Ted Bundy dies at 90 [Internet]. GOOD4UTAH. 2017 [cited 19 November 2019]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20190126164504/https://www.abc4.com/news/local-news/trooper-who-arrested-ted-bundy-dies-at-90/785699510
  12. Ortiz M. Utah law enforcement helped bring Ted Bundy down [Internet]. abc4 news. 2015 [cited 22 November 2019]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20181125143628/https://www.abc4.com/good4utah/utah-law-enforcement-helped-bring-ted-bundy-down/206338966
  13. Ted Bundy's Volkswagen [Internet]. [cited 1 December 2019]. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11729891
  14. a b Ramsland K. The Bundy Effect [Internet]. Psychology Today. 2015. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/shadow-boxing/201508/the-bundy-effect
  15. Dorman, C. (2018). Confession of Ted Bundy (open captions). [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dyPvJxqzJg.
  16. Smithson R. Rhetoric and Psychopathy: Linguistic Manipulation and Deceit in the Final Interview of Ted Bundy. Diffusion: The UCLan Journal of Undergraduate Research. 2013;6(2).