This weekend, I read a fascinating book, Who Killed Betty Gail Brown?: Murder, Mistrial, and Mystery by Robert G. Lawson. Betty Gail was a Lexington native, a Transylvania University student, and a member of the Delta Theta Chapter of Phi Mu. She was on campus late one Thursday night in October studying for a biology exam; the following morning, she was found dead in her car. Intense media coverage, a thorough police investigation, and a prolonged trial ensued. In Who Killed Betty Gail Brown?, Mr. Lawson, longtime criminal law professor at UK College of Law, recreates the crime, the investigation, and the legal proceedings from his perspective as the defense attorney for the accused killer, an alcoholic drifter named Alex Arnold.
I was immediately drawn to this story because I love any story about Lexington's past, and I loved my years as a Phi Mu in the Transy chapter. Of course, I needed to read about what happened to my sorority sister!
The book is extremely respectful of Miss Brown, and takes pains to explain why the author and his law partner were committed to the belief that Mr. Arnold was, in all likelihood, not the killer. Professor Lawson's most-read work is Kentucky's Penal Code, and I will say that the story is, at times, very lawyerly and dry. There is no sensationalism in the work -- in fact, there are times when more details would have aided the story -- and the book often reads like the recitation of facts in a legal brief. It's an interesting exercise for a reader: I find myself coming to the story with an interest in Lexington history, and the victim's school and sorority, while the author is interested in finding answers to an unsolved crime and legal proceedings that ended in mistrial. It's an interesting exercise in perspective. For example, I found in follow-up research that the victim was a niece to the late Kentucky-born actor Harry Dean Stanton. I found this detail fascinating; of course it was omitted from the narrative of the book because it had nothing to do with the story.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes stories true crime, legal nonfiction, or Lexington history. If you're familiar with Transylvania's campus, it's eerie to think that this terrible crime took place in an area where you've walked so many times. Professor Lawson tells a great story from the perspective of his own involvement in the story, and his own uncertainty about who actually killed Miss Brown.
Who Killed Betty Gail Brown? is published by The University Press of Kentucky.